27 December 2007

Is God more successful if there are other gods?


It may be that the very thing that we attempt so hard to achieve may be the one thing that causes religion (Christianity) to go stale.

Evangelicals in the United States believe that society is losing its moral moorings, that the family is under attack, and that the traditional consensus on (read American) religious values is being lost or at the least sublimated by competing forces (e.g., pluralism, secularism) in culture. The spiritual environment in Europe is often painted as the next step for the United States in the journey away from faith in God and the loss of religious values in society.

Most of this picture is now being called into question by practitioners of sociology of religion. The traditional view is, sociologists of religion say, that the relationship between religion and American society resulted in a postwar America as settled in a period of industrialism. The widespread assumption was that the social order was underpinned by religious values, which not only preserved the status quo, but promoted the well-being of all.

This view of religion and America was derived from the normative functionalism of Talcott Parsons, who stressed above everything the integrative role of religion. His view was that religion was a functional prerequisite central to the models of social systems and social action that Parson's elaborated. American society was shaped by the focus on what people believed in the various churches, and that religion's role was in the integration of society and in promoting or discouraging social change.

However, sociologists such as Rodney Stark, Roger Finke and others are discovering a different picture.

“The natural state of a religious economy is pluralism,” Stark said. “Typically, pluralism has been repressed in favor of religious monopolies.”

For example, Stark contends in his book Cities of God that contrary to popular belief, Christianity flourished in cities in the Roman Empire that had a sizable plurality of religions. The rural setting proved to be resistant to the new religion long after the urban areas of the empire had become predominantly Christian.

Stark maintains that the same is true of the United States. The colonial era was a time of low religious fervor. This did not change until the colonies became more tolerant of religious traditions. Eventually the U.S. Constitution opened up the religious marketplace, making it easier for new religious groups to flourish. This religious freedom impacted the rising fortunes of such groups as Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics, but also saw the rise of such religions as Mormonism and Jehovah's witnesses. It was also the time when evangelism and the missions movement grew in importance.

The reason for this, says Stark and others, is that the religious mind is rational, and religion is the behavior of rational, well-informed actors who choose to 'consume' various commodities. Thus the choice of religious affiliation is made in a rational way, with the potential member weighing costs and benefits of each possible choice before choosing the one that maximizes rewards, although not necessarily that it minimizes costs. This model is referred to as an religious economies view (see Stark's The Rise of Christianity, p193-195).

A religious economy consists of all the religious activity going on in any society, and consists of a market of current and potential customers, a set of religious firms seeking to serve that market, as well as a line of products to serve those customers.

An open religious economy is a religious pluralism that forces each religious body to appeal successfully to some segment of the religious market, or to slide into oblivion. When various religious bodies specialize, it becomes easier for religious "consumers" to find the best product for them.

In other words, it seems that God likes competition. He has never necessarily been the guarantor of the status quo; after all he is especially concerned about the welfare of the widow, orphan, and alien in the land.

A another point that Stark and others make is about the modern view of secularization. The traditional view is that modernity was caused a decline in religious behavior and belief, caused by an increased emphasis on science and rationality that leads people away from supernatural explanations. Proponents of this view point to the low rates of religious adherence in northern Europe as evidence of the process of secularization.

However, Stark and other proponents of the religious economies perspective disagree. They believe that the religious condition of northern Europe is largely a supply-side problem rather than a lack of demand. That is, lack of religious participation in much of Europe reflects highly regulated [religious] economies dominated by state supported churches, and that these are inefficient firms who do nothing to create demand.

To put it another way, the choice is either a state supported church that offers little to the people, or, a general lack of belief and apathy toward religion.

What does this mean to us? Basically, people here in Europe have no real alternatives or choices. Christianity gained ascendancy in the Roman world because it could offer answers and alternatives to the questions of life that people faced day to day. Zeus, Thor, and Isis couldn't help, but Yahweh could. It is almost a remake of the conflict between Ba'al and Yahweh on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). God seems to like competition.

It would seem, then, that our task is not to make Christianity the ascendant religion or the guarantor of the status quo. Instead, we should proclaim to others that Christ offers some real alternatives to the life they live now, to the questions that they face, and the hope that they need.

18 December 2007

Following Christ as a Journey

I came across this video by Bill Lizor, who works with young adult ministries out of the general board of discipleship of the United Methodist Church, entitled Prodigal Son vs Joseph & Jacob Paradigms. The focus of the clip is how do we view our journey of faith as we follow Christ. The clip is 15 minutes long, but worth a view...

This is not the first time I've encountered this theme. The best picture of this metaphor of biblical discipleship is explicated very nicely in James W. McClendon, Jr.'s Ethics, volume 1 of his Systematic Theology. (See a nice narrative about McClendon here).

McClendon's goal is to find the "momentum that carries Scripture's story forward." He captures this in three motifs: The Way, Watch-care, and Witness.

The Way focuses on the idea that the earliest motif found in Scripture is the idea of a band of travelers, e.g., "My father was a homeless Aramaean who went down to Egypt..." (Deut. 26:5). This carries through Scripture with the idea that the people of God are refugees and wanderers, looking for their home.

The journey continues in the New Testament. The incarnation of Jesus in the gospels understands Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. Seen in this light, God's command becomes highway directions for life, and the journey of Jesus to the cross is one that every disciple must follow.

McClendon ties in the remaining two motifs of Watchcare and Witness by saying that:

Watch-care is the awareness of fellow travelers on this way who need our watchful care over their own journey,...
The divine gift of Witness is to those who are not (yet) on the Way.
That is why the clip above resonates with me.

We've too often seen the journey of faith from the aspect of the Prodigal Son, with the focus on the younger son as someone outside (the other) the church, marginalized, without God. What McClendon posits, and Lizor points out, our story (or journey) is marked continually by the presence of God in our midst. The stories of Jacob and Joseph show this very clearly; the story of the Prodigal Son does not.

I think we need to rethink our approach to the Christian life. For example, how would this approach affect our evangelism? Our approach to spiritual formation?

24 November 2007

Unity or Swarm? (Musings on a thought in process)

Swarm_bees I recently wrote a post dealing with the idea of Swarm Theory (see here), and how it pertains to the body of Christ.

The idea of Swarm Theory is that the sum total of the individuals is greater than that of the whole. Individuals all have a function, but it is understood in the context of the need of the whole colony.

It also appears that the interaction of the individuals in making a decision is key to the well-being of the colony.

I made the suggestion that maybe we need to think of the body of Christ less in terms of modern management theory, managing a bunch of people meeting together in one place, and more as a colony. With all the emphasis that the writers of the New Testament put on the collective that is the body of Christ, the current mindset about leadership in the church seems a little thick-headed. Most of it is centered on the individual, and not on the group (or swarm).

What got me thinking about this topic again was this blog, Daily Reflections, by Al Fritsch, S.J. It is written from an ecumenical perspective, and is fairly typical of the ecumenical mindset, especially as it pertains to the goals and purposes of Christianity. It is not that it is wrong or liberal, it's just that I don't think they get it.

The reason I say that is, I attend an Ecumenical church here in France. We have people from the UK, US, Nigeria, Kenya, Canada, China, Germany, and France (and elsewhere). The common thread is that we all seek to follow and worship Christ. I don't know if there is any other common thing or sense of unity that would bind us together as a group as we are now.

This is what Fritsch has to say:

A sense of unity is needed everywhere in the world, from the unity of family, to that of citizens working together, to our country and to our world. Division is part of the breaking away that began in the departure from the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, God is One, yet there is diversity in unity. We are being challenged to recreate that unity in our broken world while respecting our individual uniqueness. It is all the more reason to have a mission of ecumenism where conflicting and divided factions can overcome their differences and, while diverse, can be united. This is a far greater challenge than that of hoping to be monolithic, or only allowing one person to speak for and be the "family" or the "country." We do not want the autocrats or the domineering type, only those with a singleness in purpose and yet distinctness in person. Is this not the need of a healthy democracy, a cooperative team, and of a functional family all wrapped into one?

I can appreciate Fritsch's sentiments, but what is he saying in his post?

The concept of unity is prevalent in Fritsch's post, but he doesn't say much about how we achieve that unity. Rather, is the unity of the body of Christ what we are to focus on? This theme assumes that we can achieve an organic unity, and if people turn their minds to the task of unity, we will soon have a bunch of people that are moving toward a common goal through related and relevant tasks. I am not convinced.

The point with Swarm Theory is that the focus is not on the goal (e.g., unity), but on the process of how that goal is achieved. We are not called so much to achieve unity, but to have unity. The focus is on the process and not on the goal.

In fact, I don't think unity is the right word. Which is why I like the word swarm. A swarm can have a life of it's own, but at the same time it is made up of individuals, acting on their own volition, in concert with the community.

What does this process look like in the life of the church? The process is, then, that as the life and ministry of Christ is spread out through the community of Christ's people through and by the sought-out presence of the Spirit, we become a group of people who act responsibly, which then brings wholeness and Shalom to the group (swarm). The focus isn’t on me, it is on the body of Christ. The life and ministry of Christ, as evidenced by the working of the Spirit through the gifts and fruit of the Spirit, works itself out through the lives of the individuals in the body of Christ (colony).

We become more conformed to the image of Christ, and as we are transformed, we seek to act in concert with the community to seek the goal of the body of Christ. The goal is eschatological, but lived out here and now.

19 November 2007

What I've Learned (at least from Tom Peters...)

g185 This is what I’ve learned from Tom Peters, or at least from his web site.

Know Who You Are.

Know Why You Are Here.

Know How You Are Unique.

Know How You Can Make a Difference.

Know Who Cares.

Know Whether Or Not You Care.

Not a bad place to begin. Of course, as Ben Witherington says, remember that you are unique --just like everyone else.

17 November 2007

Systems and structure

Pope-leo My friend from Scotland and I have had an ongoing conversation about how to do church. The one thing that we've tried to do is to hear what God is saying about the mission and purpose of the church that we attend. This has been an ongoing conversation, and now we are widening the conversation to a few others to help us know if we are hearing right. I think we are.

But, our greatest frustration is getting others to focus on what the church should be about. We find that the more we focus on the mission and purpose statements of the church, the more resistance to change we encounter.

Last night we had a particularly "spirited" conversation about the topic, and I sensed that as we parted company, we were both a little frustrated and feeling down about our seeming lack of progress.

The conversation continued this morning, and one thought came out of all this. We have been focusing on changing the system, and not the people. The passage that came to mind was Eph. 6:12:

12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

What this tells me is that we are trying to change the system, and not the people in the system. In other words, we are fighting a losing battle. As long the system is our focus, we are lost in a quagmire that will only drain us and spit us out like a seed from a piece of fruit.

The result is that we have to change our focus to not simply addressing the problem by writing a vision/mission/purpose statement for the system, we need to make our main focus the need to disciple, mentor, do spiritual formation, make disciples, etc., in order for change to happen. This will happen because we need to make the role of the Holy Spirit in each person's life of paramount importance.

So, structure is good, it is necessary, but that isn't what we are called to do. We are called to introduce people --not the system, to Christ, so that we all may experience abundant life.

What this makes me wonder is, how many times in the past I've looked directly into the sun and not seen it?

09 November 2007

Structure and Design

Cathedral-1000Bob Robinson over at Vanguard Church has posted an interesting article on structure and design, part of his continuing exploration of Appreciative Inquiry. My response is that the process of AI often leads one back to issues of structure and design of the church.

It isn't always WHAT we are doing, but WHY we are doing it.

About the same time I also received the monthly newsletter from Gary Collins, which contained an article about decision paralysis. His focus as a coach is on working with people who have difficulty making decisions. Collins says that this issue is often one of the reasons why churches falter in their mission and ministry.

A lot of churches are good at giving you a lot of generic ministry. For example, sermons seem to be based on some nebulous, distant purpose or idea, but do not seem to have much to do with why the church is in town. There may be a lot of activity, but the attention span of the members of the church seems short lived, and the church has to reinvent itself in the Fall or Spring, and come up with another set of new programs

I find what Collins has to say interesting:

At times every coach works with people who have difficulty making decisions. This decision making process is hardest when a client, organization or business must choose between options that are equally attractive. ...as people face a variety of options they can become overloaded and tyrannized by “decision paralysis.”

We think we know what we need to do, but faced with the problem and possible alternatives, we slow to a crawl and either cannot make a decision or we develop a generic, one size fits all, type of ministry. It fails to have structure or design.

For Collins, if a church wants to have structure and design, then, one way to "...make tough decisions easier is to be guided by a clear, concise, easy-to-remember mission statement."

The mission statement helps us to make decisions about who to reach out to, what to teach, where to focus our energies, and what path is best for the church ministry.

As Collins says, "The best mission statements don’t just hang in a frame on the wall. They can be useful guides for making decisions and reducing decision paralysis."

Or to put it another way, how do you encourage people in a church to be all God wants them if you don't know what you want them to be? That's where a mission statement comes in to play.

The point of all this then is to say, AI can lead you to discover the various processes and strengths of a church, but if you don't know where you are going, one place is as good as another.


Contributor36Another post in my ongoing struggle for clarity in understanding the function of the church.

Below I have listed some of the characteristics of the emerging church as seen through the eyes of Scot McKnight (see here and here for more).

1. Prophetic rhetoric. Christians believe the church needs to change, and they are beginning to live as if that change had already occurred.

2. Postmodernity cannot be reduced to the denial of truth. Instead, it is the collapse of inherited metanarratives (overarching explanations of life) like those of science or Marxism. Why have they collapsed? Because of the impossibility of getting outside their assumptions.

3. Praxis - what most characterizes the emerging church is the stream best called praxis—how the faith is lived out. At its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). Its distinctive emphases can be seen in its worship, its concern with orthopraxy, and its missional orientation.

Orthopraxy - is right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes.

Worship - Evangelicals sometimes forget that God cares about sacred space and ritual—he told Moses how to design the tabernacle and gave detailed directions to Solomon for building a majestic Temple.

Missional - by participating with God in the redemptive work of God in this world. In essence, it joins with the apostle Paul in saying that God has given us "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18).
Second, it seeks to become missional by participating in the community where God's redemptive work occurs. The church is the community through which God works and in which God manifests the credibility of the gospel.
Third, becoming missional means participating in the holistic redemptive work of God in this world. The Spirit groans, the creation groans, and we groan for the redemption of God (see Rom. 8:18-27).

4. Post-evangelical - The emerging movement is a protest against much of evangelicalism as currently practiced. It is post-evangelical in the way that neo-evangelicalism (in the 1950s) was post-fundamentalist. It would not be unfair to call it postmodern evangelicalism. This stream flows from the conviction that the church must always be reforming itself.

5. Political - A final stream flowing into the emerging lake is politics. Emerging churches are regularly told that the emerging movement is a latte-drinking, backpack-lugging, Birkenstock-wearing group of 21st-century, left-wing, hippie wannabes. Put directly, they are Democrats. And that spells "post" for conservative-evangelical-politics-as-usual.

One of the reasons for this post is that I downloaded Windows Live Writer, another Microsoft idea's on how to take over another aspect of the E-world. I was somewhat cynical about the program (as I am of almost anything Microsoft), but this program helped me write a blog and post it with out all the processes and aggravations that are found on Blogger. It does make the blogging process easier, so maybe something good can come out of Galilee after all.

Disclaimer: No bloggers were hurt in the writing of this blog.

10 September 2007

Why Architecture Matters

Chapel at Ronchamp, France
I borrowed this title from a couple of articles that I found at the Clapham Institute website, which you can find here and here.

I think the articles are worth a read for several reasons, since architecture reflects the same philosophical and intellectual processes that produce the literature, music, cinema, and the rest of our contemporary culture.

There is also the persistence of modernism with its philosophical underpinnings in architecture, which result in buildings that exhibit an extreme abstraction, that pander to the fetish of technology, marking humanity as alienated, and portray a utopian view of society that sees prior wisdom and tradition as something to be discarded or swept away.

A question posed in the articles is "how, specifically, does architecture fulfill the creation mandate?" The author, David Greusel, states that Genesis gives us the mandate to cultivate and subdue the earth. He says that...
our cultivation of the earth includes not just planting, tending and harvesting crops, but also the creation of our shelter, our garments, and our various arts and sciences. So architecture, the design of space for human habitation, certainly fits this broad range of activities mandated by God.
Greusel says that God is a designer, and design is important to him. God placed Bezalel, a skilled craftsman in wood, metal and precious stones, in charge of the making of the tabernacle, and that he also taught other workers, and Oholiab to assist Bezalel in the design and construction of the tabernacle, its furniture and furnishings. This was after he filled them with his Spirit. To quote Greusel, "So God is not only concerned with our structures, and wit their specific details, but he has given the Holy Spirit to men to create artistic designs." As a result we need to pay attention to how architecture impacts and affects the way people live.

How do designers reflect God as a designer? "The work of the French architect Le Corbusier gives us a case in point. For example, the photo to the right is Le Corbusier's plan for Paris. The Île-de-la-Cité is in the lower right. Notice that the place where Nôtre-Dame sits is empty in his model. Le Corbusier wanted to demolish Nôtre-Dame.

In fact, Le Corbusier wanted to tear down all of Paris and replace it with his Bauhaus-School architecture. He was able to convince the French government to use his designs for public housing in Marseilles. This "stacked ice cube tray" design became the model France used for public housing in the suburbs. What was the impact of this architecture?
Along with torched cars and Molotov cocktails, France's grim housing projects have come to symbolize the discontent that erupted in recent riots across depressed, mostly immigrant neighborhoods (CBS News).
On a more spiritual note, Le Corbusier was asked to rebuild a chapel in the mountain village of Ronchamp, France (see photo above). Charles Downey writes that...
Le Corbusier, a staunch atheist, at first had refused to accept the commission to rebuild the chapel, destroyed during World War II. But a visit to the site and the promise of total artistic freedom in designing the building ultimately convinced him... It was controversial, since a petition against Le Corbusier's chapel went all the way to the Vatican. The work began four years later, with the architect hoping to calm the polemical battle.

In a region with a fairly traditional mindset, Le Corbusier's chapel was received rather poorly. But the residents of Ronchamp today understand that they have a treasure high up on their hill," says Stéphane Potelle, a historian specializing in Le Corbusier, whom he calls "an agnostic architect who was steeped in spirituality.
The key phrase here, of course, is that he was "steeped in spirituality." How does this relate to the issue of God as designer, or how one reflects the idea of God as designer in their work? Is the spirituality of the designer or architect the issue, or is the spirituality that the building design elicits from visitors the point of all this?

Does God give his spirit to men to create artistic designs? Is anything that is done as art have a spiritual quality? Is it assumed that they are done in God's name? Greusel also points out that architects honor God and imitate him by bringing order to their designs. Are we to assume that anything creative is spiritual, reflecting the glory of God? Or is it more that the creative process reflects the divine mandate to create, subdue, and cultivate the earth? Bezalel and Oholiab aside, I don't know too many architects who would own up to this, or theologians for that matter.

Greusel is right, most acts of architecture are substantial public acts, and they impact shared environments as well as the lives of thousands of people. We shape our buildings, but they shape us as well. How do we infuse a witness into our creativity without making it a Sunday morning worship service? There are many cathedrals and churches in Europe built with this thought in mind, and today most sit empty (including Sunday morning) except when the tours march by.

Read Greusel's articles and think about them. It's a good take on the role of architecture, but for me, how do we address this task? How does architecture have a biblical witness?

08 September 2007

Life at 60

This cartoon used to be funny.

As you may be able to discern, this is the day of my 60th birthday.
There is supposed to be a party tonight with family, friends, and few others, which will be nice.

Quite frankly, other than a painfully sore back from picking up my grandson, I don't feel much that tells me I'm sixty.

Gerd Lüdemann has published a review of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict's book, Jesus of Nazareth. I know Ratzinger more as a theologian than as a Pope, and although I am not a Roman Catholic, I have respect for his writing and thinking. I wish I could say the same for Lüdemann. He is a prime example of a good scholar who has enshrined Reason as the mirror and filter for his thinking, so much so that his scholarship ends up as a procrustean bed for religion, especially Christianity.

The reason I mention it is that the spring 2007 (34) issue of the Karl Barth Society Newsletter has a discussion on the theology of German theologian Wolf Krötke, who spoke about the "inarticulate, amorphous and diffusely vague" atheism that marks the situation of the church in eastern Germany, a kind of atheism that offers no arguments against God, for it is simply assumed that God is not there. This is the impression that I get when I read Lüdemann.

Anyway, having said all that, just as a way to celebrate another boundary marker, here is a song from my younger days that I enjoyed/enjoy, so take a look and listen.

04 September 2007

Ants, Orcs and Al Qaeda: God’s Prophets?

Le Ron Shults' website has a blog about the topic of swarm theory, which I blogged on a while back. Take a look at it and tell me what you think. I haven't had much more than a cursory look, but it looks like we covered much of the same territory, although his blog does have a longer discussion. I have planned to return to this topic at some point, but not until I return home from the US in October.

Anyway, give it a read and let me know what you think.

23 August 2007


The MSNBC website reports that the Aug. 20-27, 2007 issue of Newsweek has this article:

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.

You have to read it to believe it. I swear, I am not making this up.

21 August 2007

Common Sense

This one was too good to pass up. I like Ben Witherington, and this post just about says it all, or at least better than a game based on Joel Osteen's writings. Here a few aphorism on Common Sense:

3. It's always darkest before dawn. So if you're going to steal your neighbor's newspaper, that's the time to do it.

4. Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.

5. Always remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else.

6. Never test the depth of the water with both feet.

7. If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments.

10. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

11. If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

13. Some days you're the bug; some days you're the windshield.

14. Everyone seems normal until you get to know them.

17. Duct tape is like 'The Force'. It has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.

18. There are two approaches to arguing with women. Neither one works.

And my all time favorite:

22. Never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.

Now for something completely different...

Here is a new game from Endless Games Inc. Between the name of the manufacturer and the game, I think that pretty much says it all.

(Someone I know wrote me to say that he had played the game, and the winner was... Joel Osteen!)

19 August 2007

The Trouble Is...

This cartoon by david hayward (who by his own confession is an artist trapped in a pastor’s body) says what's been on my mind lately. I have been doing my monthly cruise of blogs, and I am somewhat disappointed by the battle that is being waged in the name of Christ.

Way back when, when I was a wee one in Christ, the battle lines were clear: It was the Fundies against the Liberals, we knew who the enemy was, and what they believed, and how they were a threat to those of us who took the bible seriously.

Well, I've gotten over a lot of that nonsense, but the battle still goes on, and only the names of the guilty have been changed so that we know who to gnash our teeth at and bash.

One is either a target or looking for a target. Take for example, this web page from the blog Critical Issues Commentary. The purpose (oops, sorry) raison d'etre for this blog came about because the writer of the blog...

"...met regularly with a group of local pastors, often presenting position papers on timely doctrinal issues. When he found that the messages were accepted by only a few of the attendees and rarely reached the pews, he chose to speak directly to the people by initiating a bimonthly newletter."
The writer of this blog took the scriptures from the various bibles that Rick Warren uses in the Purpose Driven Life and laid them out alongside the same scriptures from NAS Bible. I'm not sure why he did this. Maybe it was to show that even with all the different versions, the word of God still says the same thing?

Or, how about this one from Extreme Theology, where they write
"Those of you familiar with Rick Warren’s writings are aware that this man is a scripture twister. He constantly rips passages out of context, exegetes bad paraphrases and generally proof texts his own ‘made up’ doctrines."
Then there is this article from USA Today that points out that
...Warren is part of the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and all his senior staff sign on to the SBC's doctrines, such as the literal and infallible Bible and exclusion of women as senior pastors. Yet Warren's pastor-training programs welcome Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Jews and ordained women (emphasis added).
Critics of Warren have latched onto this article as ammunition for their assault on Warren, especially the line about welcoming Mormons and Jews. I find it interesting that they lump Catholics, Methodists, and ordained women in with Jews and Mormons. The last I checked, Warren does not offer a special session for Catholic, Jews, or Mormons, everyone goes to the same sessions. So, if Mormons, Jews, and other are attending this training, they are hearing the gospel, no punches pulled. So what is so terrible about that?

I have some issues with Rick Warren, but I think it comes out of my own arrogance, believing that I am more on track with the truth than Warren. I forget that I can at best impact 15 or 20 people a month for Christ, and he has the attention of 10's of thousands. So, how would you present the gospel to that many people? If I did it, the fire marshal would close the place down because of the fire hazard from all the dry material in the place, or at the worst, a repeat of Acts 20v9.

And just so Rick doesn't feel alone, here is a blog that does a take on the theology of Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elvis, or this one about what Rob believes about hell.

Actually, I've read the book, and I am impressed with his handling of scripture, and the insights that he shares, but that doesn't seem to be the view of his commentators.

Then of course, we can't let the day pass without taking out our theological rulers and rapping Brian McLaren's knuckles. Truth War Central has a list of quotes by McLaren, including this sample of "outright heresy":
"I don't think we've got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be 'saved'?.... I don't think the liberals have it right. But I don't think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy."
As a voracious reader (when my attentions spans allows it), I've seen a lot of this material in it's original context. And I am disappointed by what I read on these posts and blogs. I have no doubt about the sincerity of the writers, but there are some things that bother me. Let me list a few things that I think writers and bloggers need to be aware.

1. Guys (and gals), try to be a little more discerning as you read. Take for example this quote from McLaren that is put forth as unorthodox:
"What if Jesus' secret message reveals a secret plan?".... What if he didn't come to start a new religion--but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?"

––Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 4

I've read the book, and I remember this quote quite vividly, because I thought McLaren was right on target. The way it is presented in the blog makes is look like McLaren is saying something completely different from what he says in the book.

So, try to be a little more discerning. Make sure that you are reporting what the writer/speaker is actually saying, not what you think you hear through your filters and presuppositions.

2. This brings me to the next point. Let's try a little more charity when we discuss things that someone has said or written. Isaiah reports God as saying "Come, let us reason together." God had brought a charge against his people, and now he was calling them to discuss and defend themselves before him. He was calling them TO judgment, not pronouncing it. Don't we owe the targets of our posts the same courtesy?

3. Related to this is the reality that we are our own worse enemies. These attacks do more to debilitate the cause of Christ than any broadside we get from our adversaries. Muslim apologists, for example, take these attacks and arguments as illustrations of the unworthiness of Christianity, and that so much disagreement must prove that it is not true. Let's not give them ammunition for their Dawa.

4. I am also appalled by the ad hominem arguments used in many of these articles. Attacking the person never has a place in the life of the Christ follower, so please, stick to the issue.

5. There is also the practice of impugning motives for the subjects of our posts. It is easy to paint with a broad brush, and it is a good way to vilify someone as well. Be more careful in this area.

6. Finally, a professor once told me (a LONG time ago) that it is easy to attack and tear down, but how will you rebuild it so that it is more viable? I think we need to look at the issue in this context, in order to sort out what really needs to be done. Instead of shelling and bombarding indiscriminately, how do we work to reach out to those whom you think are being lead astray. What about those who have not heard the message of the gospel, or not taken the step of faith that turns them to follow Christ?

Throwing out punches through a blog is not going to be taken seriously by those who do not follow Christ. I use bloglines to track my favorite blogs, and quite frankly, based on the subscriber numbers given when I add a blog, most of us don't have much of a following inside the camp either. So perhaps a little perspective is in line?

We also seem to forget that the Roman Empire was not transformed by a long list of bloggers and writers, but by people, one by one, who lived the Christ life and witnessed to others through their lives the reality of the one they followed and served. Open proselytizing was frowned on, and criticizing the Emperor wasn't the best idea either.

John says that "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21v25)." Well, we are still writing about what (we think) Jesus did or didn't do, but we've move out of the libraries and now piling it up on the internet.

Let me finish with another cartoon by david hayward. I once had an old saint tell me that we Christians not only shoot our wounded, we often bury them as well.

I have no doubt that I will get some feedback and flack about this post, but that's okay. I like a good discussion as much as the next person (after all, I've been to bible school, right?).

But don't come after me waving the bible in my face saying how we are supposed to do this or that to defend the faith. I agree, we are to be ready to give a defense of the hope that lies within us, but we are not called to bludgeon others based on some general command Paul gave to Timothy or whomever.

So do your homework, and come, let us reason together.

21 July 2007

Swarm Theory

When we visited Grenoble a few years ago, my friend Matt told me about what he called the Hive Mentality, which states that the group or colony is smarter than the individual, and that the group will work together successfully without a leader. At the time, I thought that Matt was pretty smart and the subject very intense.

Well, three years later, I still think Matt is pretty smart, and I still think that the topic is still very intense. I came across an article online at the National Geographic website about Swarm Intelligence. Swarm intelligence is based on the study of collective behavior in decentralized, self-organized systems (e.g., insects, birds, and fish). Basically the thrust of the argument is this:

“Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are." A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending a territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence.”

The incredible thing about swarm intelligence is that...

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Another thing that fascinates me is how ants (or in this case, bees) arrived at decisions. In one test, they set out five boxes as potential hives for bees and watched as the scouting bees investigated the potential new nests. After bees had visited all the boxes, a decision had to be made which one would make the best nest.

The decisive moment didn't take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.

The decision making process was very simple; seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices. All this without someone with the gift of leadership.

This has brought me back to the question I’ve posted on more than once, what is “leadership” in the context of the body of Christ?

This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians about the body:

18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body (1 Cor. 12v18f).

In an Ant colony, there are workers, a queen, foragers, nurses and the like. Each has a different function, yet they all function together as a colony. How much like the function of the body of Christ?

The key to swarm intelligence is that the sum of the individuals is greater than the whole. Individuals all may have a function, but it is understood in the context of the need of the whole colony.

It also appears that the interaction of the individuals in making a decision is key to the well-being of the colony.

What does this all mean? I think maybe we need to think of the body of Christ as less a bunch of people meeting together in one place and more as a colony. With all the emphasis that the writers of the New Testament put on the collective of the body of Christ, the current mindset about leadership in the church is a little thick-headed. Most of it is centered on the individual, and not on the group (or colony).

Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.

I find the part interesting about not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. As I said in an earlier post, we want a hero who will tell us what to do so that we can disengage and not have to do our part. But what if Christians tried to listen to God and did what they thought they were supposed to do, and did this is concert with other Christians who are trying to listen to God, wouldn’t we have something that looks and acts like a colony? More importantly, wouldn’t we be closer to the idea of the Body of Christ that we find in Scripture?

Anyway, one last thought from the article:

"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."

I think the idea of the gifts of the Spirit is that the life and ministry of Christ is spread out among a group of people, acting responsibly, which will bring wholeness and Shalom to the colony. The focus isn’t on me, seeing prayer as a spiritual cosmic slot machine that we plug our prayers-nickels into in order to hit a spiritual jackpot.

Why do we have leaders? Probably for the same reason Moses allowed divorce.

The Colony of Christ. Hmmm.

It would make an interesting experiment.

03 July 2007

We Need a Hero

I arrived at an interesting conclusion the other day as I was discussing a sermon with my wife I had just preached. I spoke on the concept of being someone after God's own heart. The premise centers on the idea of David, who, for all his lechery and sinfulness, God still called a person after his own heart. (Which I now agree is true, by the way, but that's another sermon.)

As I followed the development of the need for a king in the book of 1 Samuel, you first find a people who are morally corrupt. Judges 21v25 says that there was no king in Israel in those days, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

Next we see corrupt leadership, first in the sons of Eli (ch. 2), and then in the sons of Samuel (ch. 8), whom even the people of Israel saw as crooks.

The chaos of those days are seen in the review of Israel's history in ch. 12, one of rebellion, idolatry, punishment, and deliverance. When Samuel cries out to God about his rejection by the people, the LORD reminds him that it isn't about Samuel, it's God they are rejecting.

Considering that it was the moral decline of the nation that had created the necessity for a king, and that the people’s desire for a king originated from a purely national and not from a religious motive, it is not surprising that Samuel is unwilling to comply with the demand for a king. Instead of recognizing that they themselves were responsible for the failures of the past, they blamed the form of government they had, and put all their hopes upon a king.

As I thought about this, I saw the paradigm of politics in America summed up in this idea. Living in Europe, I like to think I'm a bit more "objective" about US politics. Maybe not, but much of what I have seen since the beginning of the Reagan hegemony is that we don't want to deal with the issues. Give us a leader who can tell us what to do. Or as Israel said, "save us, then we will serve you."

That means that I can remain emotionally unattached and unchallenged by the issues that we face in our country today. Yes, family values are important, but what of the family values that allow the children of someone else's family to be malnourished, poorly educated, and turned into social pariah's that we affectionately call the "Poor."

Or family values that allow obscene amounts of money and lives to be spent on creating an economic enterprise zone in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Our moral failure has caused us to abandon ship on our country, and we seem to lack the will to face the issues. Instead, give us a leader that is tough on crime, on terrorism, _______(fill in the blank) who will guarantee our lifestyle at the level to which we are accustomed. We need this person to take charge so that we can remain in the moral and social apathy that we so deeply enjoy, so I don't have to commit to getting involved.

The thing is, we have a hero, but since he doesn't have a mask and a gun that shoots silver bullets, we don't take him seriously.

04 June 2007

Are you listening?

I find it interesting when things seem to flow together. For example. I have had some long conversations with a friend about our church, and what it should look like. One of the things that my friend said is that our church is a crossroads.

A crossroads is a place where two or more roads meet. It is also a place where people tend to congregate at they travel these roads.

The Roman empire was noted for their roads, which facilitated travel across the length and breadth of the known world. Paul knew these roads and traveled them during his journeys, eventually ending in the city of Rome.

What was unique about Paul, and Christ as well, was that they knew the importance of a crossroads. Galilee was such a crossroads, and his teaching and preaching focused on the crossroads between Greek and Hebrew culture.

Paul focused on the major cities of Asia Minor and Greece, planting churches that would impact the people that passed through them with the claims of the gospel. These churches were planted in cities that were crossroads.

What my friend suggested was that Grenoble is a crossroads. People come here literally from all over the world, stay a while, and then move on elsewhere. We have people from the UK, France, US, Canada, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, China, Germany, Singapore, India --which is just a partial role call. If that is the case (and it is), what are we as a church doing to impact these people? How do we help them to begin a journey of faith with Christ, or to equip these saints for ministry, so that when they leave, they will be prepared to minister to others at their next stop?

This past weekend, Harry, the speaker at the men's dinner, spoke about hearing what is really said. As the story goes, he was driving in the country when a woman drove by and yelled "Pig!" at him. He leaned out the window and yelled "Cow!" He then came around a bend in the road and had to stop quickly, in the road in front of him was the largest pig he had ever seen.

I didn't think much about it at the time. Nor did I think much about the email I received from another friend discussing the vertical and horizontal axes of the cross. The upward axis is the Christian life lived to and for God, and the horizontal axis is the Christian life lived to and for other Christians and others who have yet to follow Christ in the faith journey.

I've heard it before, so basically I filed it away. During the sermon on Sunday about the church in Acts 2v42-47, the main illustration was a picture of a cross, with a discussion about the significance of the horizontal and vertical axes, as mentioned above.

I was beginning to hear. I knew that the church should be a crossroads, but I hadn't considered what that looked like. We had to be a crossroads, but to do that we had to have both the horizontal and the vertical axes in place and in balance. And, quite frankly, seen from above, the crossroads is cross shaped.

So Harry, I think I got what you meant. You need to listen to what is said, but often what is said is in a conversation, which means it often comes in little pieces. It also means that sometimes you don't get it right off, it had to soak for a while before you can do anything with it.

01 May 2007


We've just returned from five days in Italy, three of them in Venice, where we met our friends from the US. Although we won't suffer jet-lag as they will, I have experienced a numbness of mind and spirit since our return. I've mulled over a few things during the trip and after. An elder in a church once asked, "Does God go on vacation with you?" Interesting question, but I'm afraid that answer is "sometimes, but I make him sit in the back seat."

The metaphor for this is St. Mark's Basilico in Venice. It is a very beautiful structure, plenty of jewels and inlaid gold leaf on the ceiling and arches, but in the end it is a structure made by human hands. Not that there isn't a lot of activity in the building, and it does inspire awe, but in the end, when you walk out of the building, you file the experience away and move down the line to the
Ducale or the Arsenale.

My spirituality is like that at times. Well, let's be honest, plenty of times. I put together something that looks very pretty and awe inspiring, and others might even be impressed by it, but after all is said and done, it is an exterior structure that is mostly for show and tell. Inside, I get spiritually lazy and sloppy, kind of like forgetting to sweep up the trash and garbage left on the piazza by those who visit St. Mark's.
So, now I need to think about how to dismantle this Basilico that I've constructed for my inward, spiritual life, and let what is on the outside look like what's on the inside. So, God, have you ever driven in Italy?

The other thing that I've been thinking through is what my friend from the US said this weekend. He asked what life was like since we've arrived in Grenoble. I pontificated about some of the things that had happened, but my wife said that each day she asks God, "well, you brought us here, now show us why we are here, what's our purpose for being here?" Very profound. He made the suggestion that we need to be aware of our God sightings, and to keep track of them, maybe do a journal (or blog?).
So, I'm thinking about sightings. God sightings, that is.

Monday, as I sloughed off the numbness of the drive through Italy, I wondered how I would know a sighting when it happened. While I was doing this, a friend called me to ask me a question that he's asked me before.

"What spiritual gifts do you think I have," he asked.

Questions like this always throw me, not because they are so simple, but because of how profound they are. I can never easily answer a question like this because I can't just say, "you have the gift of helps, leadership, patience, prophecy," and so on. This process quantifies the Spirit, and rationalizes the Spirit's activities into a process or system that allows us to understand and predict the results. (I refer the reader to the musings below that go into this idea more fully.)
To put it short, I couldn't answer his question, so I do what I always do, I made an appointment to have lunch with him on Wednesday, where we will take up the topic.

As I lay in bed last night, it suddenly occurred to me that I had a God sighting. I had just seen God stirring up my friend's life, and it was pushing him out of the box he was in. My friend and I have spent time almost every week praying about the church, leadership, and each other. I've watched God put his hand on his life, and how he is reordering his spiritual life. I can't take credit for it, I've only been one of the people that God has brought across his path to move him further along the pipeline, so to speak.

So, this is my first topic about a "God sighting." When Peter showed up at the door after the angel released him from prison, he had the door slammed in his face because the church was busy praying for Peter in prison. Sometimes we miss the obvious.
I'm not sure how I want to do a God-sighting journal. I could bore everyone and put everything on a blog, but I'm not sure I want to do that. However, I am flexible enough to put some of them there.

As for this conversation with my friend, I thought about it throughout the remainder of the day, and tried to get my mind around it. Giving him a Spiritual Gifts Inventory is meaningless, because it does exactly what I mentioned above, it tries to turn the results of the manifestation of the Spirit in our lives into quantifiable things, instead of evidence that the Spirit is at work in us. The Spirit reproduces the life of Christ (the fruit of the Spirit) and the ministry of Christ (the gifts of the Spirit) in our lives.

When we turn these manifestings into something objective, we are making it into something we can control and predict.
If a thunder storm comes through Grenoble, I can record wind speed, temperature, air pressure, rainfall and all that. But each of these items are not the storm, they are only effects of the storm that we can observe. The outworking of the Spirit is much the same. The so-called gifts of the Spirit are observations of the impact that the Spirit has through us. They aren't badges and medals that we collect to show what good Christian scouts we are.

Enough of that, I think. I need to work through all this and try to come up with a path to follow. It is so much easier when I do the driving my self.

07 March 2007

Management in the Church

In my struggle with modern management theory in the church, I've come across another aspect of the struggle. Interestingly it comes from Max Weber (pronounced Vay-bear), the German sociologist of the 19th century. I want to sketch this out and try to work through the various issues over the next few posts. Herr Professor Weber doesn't get it all quite right, but there are aspects of his analysis of conventional management that I find intriguing.

The first aspect of conventional management, Weber says, is the emphasis on Individualism. This had its start in the Reformation. We are called (beruf) to do a specific work, but we are also called to work hard on our jobs, and to fulfill the obligations imposed on us by our work and place in the world. The upshot of all this, according to Weber, is that the more we are pushed into individualism, the more isolated we become.

The second aspect of conventional management is materialism. The goal of Christianity, according to John Wesley, is to produce industry and frugality. With the movement of management away from its Christian roots, we find the emphasis is now on maximizing productivity (industry) and efficiency (frugality). The end goal is to produce profitability.

This movement toward materialism in conventional management has lead to rationality. Rationality involves calculation and efficiency in order to make the results predictable. Relationships within conventional management are all the means to an ends, i.e., the final bookkeeping entry.

I think the issues are apparent. We want our churches to be significant for the kingdom, but we run them like a business. And we know what the goal of a business is.

There is another tension I find in the church that comes from an analysis of conventional management theory. This deals with the issue of authority. Weber describes three kinds of management categories:

Charismatic authority—This is belief in the intrinsic gifts of the individual. People respond to this kind of authority because they believe that the individual has a special calling. (Examples of this type of authority include Martin Luther King Jr., Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, Golda Meir, and Jesus. It is people’s belief in the charisma that matters; thus, we can have Hitler and Jesus on the same list.)

Traditional authority—Belief in time and custom. People respond to this kind of authority because they honor the past and they believe that time-proven methods are the best. (Good examples of this type of authority are your parents and grandparents, the Pope, and monarchies.)

Rational-legal authority—The belief in procedure or routine. People respond to this kind of authority because they believe that the requirements or laws have been enacted in the proper manner. People see leaders as having the right to act when they obtain positions in the procedurally correct way. (A good example of this type is your professor—it does not matter who the professor is, as long as he or she fulfills the requirements of the job.

The irony is this: Most churches reflect a Traditional style of authority, because this is the way that churches have always been run and managed. However, people look for Charismatic style of authority, because they believe that God will raise up gifted individuals to run his church and lead it deeper into his will.

The final aspect of this tensions is that most churches, while appearing to be Traditional in its view of authority, because of the emphasis on conventional management practice, are actually very Rational-legal in its use of authority. Programs are set up, rationalized so that they are predictable and calculable. No surprises.

What happens is that the Charismatic leader is almost always sublimated and assumed into the process, taking the edge or surprise out of his leadership.

It would be interesting to see what Mr. Hybels or Mr. Warren would say about this.

18 January 2007

More on Stewardship

More on Stewardship

Here are some more thoughts on Stewardship as a model for leadership.

1 Peter 4:10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

The associations here are Grace, Steward, and Serve. Unusual associations. Let’s look first at the word Grace.

When we look at grace in the New Testament, we are looking at the first century world in which Paul lived, and was based on reciprocity. Reciprocity was basic to all forms of social interaction in ancient Mediterranean society. Cicero, for example, tells us that if obligations are incurred between two parties, an adequate response is required, for no duty is more imperative than that of proving one's gratitude. Seneca does not hesitate to point out reciprocal interchange was the chief bond that holds people together in society. Within the Graeco-Roman world the exchange of services were never voluntary, but always reciprocal.

In this context was the benefactor, who was someone who could provide you with access to goods, advancement, resources, assistance, and so forth. There were variations on this theme, but the main characteristics seem to be:

  • There was a difference in status between the benefactor and the beneficiary, the one who received assistance;
  • It was a voluntary relationship;
  • It was based on trust, loyalty, and obligation
  • It was the role of the superior (benefactor) to provide protection for the beneficiary.

The motivation that moved the benefactor to give assistance to the beneficiary was the free and good will of the benefactor. It was solely the choice of the benefactor to help the potential beneficiary or not, but accepting the gift meant accepting an obligation of loyalty and service to the benefactor.

In the New Testament it became know as Grace. God was the Benefactor for his people. Like the Roman-Greek world that Paul moved and lived, God was not compelled or required to respond to those who came to him for a benefit (indeed, we can make the case that God acted unmoved and unasked to bestow benefits on his people).

Grace then is the foundational understanding of how God related to his people. Unasked and unmoved, he bestowed benefits on his people, and expected a reciprocal relationship of loyalty and service in response to his grace. This is the motivation for the New Covenant and the sending of Jesus Christ to become a human being (If you want to understand this a little better, I suggest a few hours of reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics).

The second idea that comes into play is that of the steward. Peter applies the concept to God’s grace and the relationship between Christians. Each Christian receives Grace from God, which manifests itself in various ways. Each of us is called to be stewards of that grace, to act as brokers in a way. This means we are responsible to see that God’s grace is extended to every person, and that they experience that grace in real and meaningful way.

As we receive this grace from our benefactor, we are called upon to show loyalty and service to him, and to use that grace and as well as carry it to others.

The final result is that this will all amount to the glory of the benefactor. He will be honored and recognized for his generosity to his beneficiaries.

Finally, as brokers of his grace, we are to serve each other. The concept of the steward as it is used here is that I have been given a trust and a commission to use God’s grace in my life to minister to others. When we speak, we speak the very words of God; when we serve, we do so with the strength that God supplies.

And I must give accountability for all this someday.

This is why I like the concept of the steward better than leadership. For me, leadership moves the focus from God to me and what I can do for God, and how I can be used by God. Stewardship says that what I have is not my own, it has been given to me, and I have to respond to God’s gift of grace by my loyalty and service to him. When I do that, others benefit from his grace. If I do it as a leader, I have a great program as the result. I think lives count more.