Sunday, July 26, 2009

Steps Toward Being a Missional Church

How does “missional” become something other than a buzz word? How can the Alliance, as well as churches from other traditions, carry out the mission of God? Here are some thoughts, which I humbly offer as simply food for much needed further and deeper discussion for those churches that have crossed the bridge to being missional, not in word, but in deed.

Being missional requires intentional strategy, and this strategy must be more sophisticated than simply saying that we will have "need-based" evangelism. The problem with “need-based" evangelism is that it may shape up to be simply a response to a neighborhood problem that is staring a local church in the face. It’s good to respond to what is staring us in the face, but that alone is not enough to be truly missional. For example, we learn that there are lots of divorces in our city, so we respond with a divorce recovery program. To be missional is much more than this. It is to figure out how to speak the gospel to the multi-layers of life in the community in a way that brings, however slowly but surely, what I would call kingdom transformation of individuals and their way of life together.

I propose a multilayered look at the community around us in order to develop, under the Spirit’s direction, approaches to bring the presence of Christ to every person. What am I talking about? As an illustration, if you were to open up the liberal arts catalog for a nearby university you might find departments like geography, sociology, perhaps anthropology and business. Each of these departments looks at and analyzes the world from a particular perspective which, theoretically, contributes to a wholistic understanding of humanity. My proposal is not to master all of that knowledge, but simply to look around us and see these various layers of life and of life-interaction --as represented in this simple illustration by university departments -- as they are occurring in real time with real people in our city.

For example, I can look at the city where I live geographically. What is its climate, and what is the impact of its climate on people’s lives? One snap of the finger answer is that my area has a four-season climate and thus people do a lot with recreation. More deeply I might ask: how does geography affect how people earn their living. And another quick answer would be that the city’s centrality has made it a transportation hub, which allows for industry. Sociologically what do I see? I see immigrants who are here because they can be connected to transportation and industry. Further questions can follow: what is their economic status and what businesses and jobs are they involved in? The list of these questions can go on and on.

Here is what I am wrestling with. This geographic/sociological analysis is probably step one in developing an in-depth strategy, but it is fraught with hazards. For the rest of this blog entry I will deal with the hazards.

This kind of strategic work was commonly understood in missiology, but was presented to pastors by Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church when he talked about doing evangelism strategy by creating a composite of the kind of person who lives in the area around a church and about shaping the church's programing to reach those people. Some pastors thought that this meant that if the church was surrounding by a young family demographic then the church should ignore ministries to seniors, or whatever. Pastors who think like that have failed Junior High School Strategic Planning for that of course in not what Warren meant. What he did mean was that an attractional model required an understanding of who the local church primarily wished to attract, which for him was young families, so the church offered programming to young families. Warren never meant that people who did not match the area’s aggregate demographic should be ignored.

However, even with this disclaimer it seems to me that building a program focused on attracting a single slice of the surrounding demographic is hazardous for the following reasons.

First, single demographic strategy ignores the complex fabric of society that I am alluding to, the subtle but real dynamic of day to day interaction that people have in their homes and in their work places. Thus the church, in seeking to “reflect” its community can end up doing the opposite, that is, it end up being an exclusive club that screens out all who don’t fit in.

Second, and here I am spinning off from the above fundamental problem, while seeking to address the felt needs of the community the church may end up missing the felt needs that are experienced by people around them. This is because the deepest felt need in any community is simply to be a community, to find a way of coming together, and in that coming together to address the micro-community of the family, to be a village that raises its children, to provide love for the very elderly who are nearing the end of their journey. This cannot be done when everyone who is “alike” huddles together.

Third, the church, in trying to focus on a particular group to the exclusion of others runs counter to strong biblical mandates and examples. Every picture that we have of the early church shows people who are slaves and slave owners, craftsmen, farmers, Jewish heritage and gentile, the gentiles being sub-divided into many language backgrounds, as well as male and female. This demographic mess was responded to by the Holy Spirit who inspired the greatest writings in history on love and unity. The church today is called into the same mess, and the same struggle.

Please allow me to place one more disclaimer here. I am not speaking against first generation immigrant churches that worship in their language of origin. Many reasons can be given as to why this is not only necessary, but good. However, down the road, if they are true to the gospel, these language churches are called to establish a ministry that reaches out beyond their own group. I am so thankful to say that this is happening.

If a church considers itself to be exploring new models and thinks of itself and being beyond the attractional paradigm, my challenge is that it consider if this is truly so, or is it simply re-painting the old mono-demographic church with new colors.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Allan Hirsch and the Attractional Church Model

Allan Hirsch is credited with coining the word “attractional” to describe the way evangelical cutting edge church has been done from the 1980’s until now. The Alliance in Canada has been into this model in a fairly big time way since the mid-eighties and only recently is beginning to experiment with other possibilities. The pure attractional model seeks to draw people into the church building so that they will have a specialized need met, and in the process of having a need met enter into meaningful human relationships, and then hopefully they will be pointed to Christ, enter into a saving relationship with him, and finally be integrated into the life of the congregation. Doing church like this is certainly superior to the forties through seventies model, which was to hold church services of various kinds, such as Sunday AM and PM services and Wednesday night prayer service, and assume that now and then someone would walk in with a need for God. The attractional model was a brave departure and is based on the words of Jesus who tells us to go out into the highways and by-ways and to compel people to come in, “come in” meaning “come into” the church building and then into the church’s life.

The attractional model began by capitalizing on what in business is called good-will, that is, a good reputation in the community as a place of peace and a place where help could be found. So, parents were willing to allow their teens to attend the youth meeting at the local Alliance Church, and they might even drop in and attend the Christmas musical.

Several problems have, however, emerged from the use of this model. First, its usage seems to relentlessly pull the church to shape its message so that those whom it wishes to attract are not pushed away too soon, that is, before they become Christians. I personally have felt this pressure, and I have defended Bill Hybels against the accusation that his message is watered down, but few anymore deny that the attractional model tempts church and preacher to conform to the world, at least a bit. Currently in my office we are taking a look at statistics regarding baptisms in various churches in the Alliance in Canada as one way of trying to take a snapshot of the relationship between people hearing enough biblical instruction to actually follow Christ in baptism and the style of outreach.

Another difficulty is that the washing away of good-will for the church in Canada has made the attractional model much less functional. The rise of militant atheism, the demise of the United Church, the tiresomeness of the religious right in the States, and probably most notably, the residential school scandal, have all contributed to high levels of distrust for churches resulting in ever higher levels of resistance to anything done by any brand of church resulting in fewer and fewer people being attracted to significant encounters with people or God within the four walls of the church. Its just gotten really hard to coax people to come to church for any reason whatsoever. Really hard.

Which leads to the last and saddest difficulty which has been present from the beginning of the rise of the attractional model, the fact that most of the attraction was to other Christians because it pandered to the baby boomer's predilection to shop church. The demand for choice is part and parcel of sociological post-modernism, and the lack of commitment to truth is part of philosophical post-modernism, and both of these created a climate where people who were raised as Baptists would leave the church of their heritage in a heartbeat once they figured out that the Pentecostal church had a better nursery. Thus we have the scene of large evangelical churches being large because their programs attracted Christians from smaller, not quite as up to the minute, evangelical churches in town.

So, when people like Allan Hirsch turn withering, sarcastic criticism on this model, we should not be surprised, but should be humbled, and we should be asking the Holy Spirit what needs to be done.

Having said all of that I will now say that I personally do not find the solutions that Allan Hirsch puts forward to be particularly compelling. For example, Allan promotes the house church movement as it occurred in China. From time to time house church movements are promoted for use in North America, and, from time to time some of them meet with modest success. However, it is my opinion (note – opinion, not fact based judgment) that societal conditions are radically different here than in China and that while house churches may be planted and continue to live, a movement of house churches is not likely to flourish in North America.

Yet more to come.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Listening to Allan Hirsch

I have at last returned from a long journey back and forth across the country visiting our pastors in conference and I will comment a bit on the input that was given by guest speakers.

Allan Hirsch was the guest speaker in an April conference. Hirsch writes from a background that includes a Jewish heritage and also a denominational heritage from the Restoration Movement as it finds itself in Australia.

In one of his blogs David Fitch includes Hirsch in what he calls a “neo-Anabaptist” movement. Calling Hirsch a neo-Anabaptist may be stretching things a bit but there is certainly some crossover between the Restorationists and the Anabaptists in their claims that it is possible to discover and to present pure New Testament Christianity, or what is sometimes known as primitive Christianity. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders of the Restoration Movement, went from being a Presbyterian to a Baptist, and from there became even more radical in claiming that it was possible to “restore” the church to its New Testament simplicity in governance and in practice. From this effort some of the points restoration churches are noted for emerged such as a denial of creeds, self-government of the local church, and not being regenerated until baptised by immersion (for which the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is seen as the defining model), and in the Church of Christ, no musical instruments in the church.

In The Forgotten Ways Allan Hirsch relies on the restorationist meta-narrative that the New Testament church was pure in all things but at one point in history, identified by him as the conversion of Constantine, everything went wrong, and has continued wrong. This meta-narrative has been challenged since the origin of the Restoration Movement in the very early 19th century and I will not discuss it further at this point. One should note that Hirsch sees a recent exception in the house church movement in China.

So much for background. Personally I find that when I peel back the restorationist meta-narrative that Allan Hirsch has many powerful insights and I think these should be listened to. At the same time, all of his work should be subjected to strong critical thinking. And finally I have this recurring question: is either “neo-Reformed” or “neo-Anabaptist” the place where we want to go?

More to come.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Some Hope at Last!

Sometimes when I really like a book I might say: “This book makes me swoon.” But in this case “swoon” might obliquely link, even through a pun, to the “swoon theory” of the resurrection. None of that for N.T. Wright’s masterful and magisterial Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. So, could I say that I want to jump up and down for joy or some other really happy thing as a response—I’m sure you get the idea.

First, of apologetic interest is Wright’s very up to date defense of the resurrection. Considered to be one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, Wright not only speaks of what we might call the standard defenses for the resurrection of Jesus, but also shows how the Greeks did not view resurrection as life after death, but as something that referred to “life after whatever sort of life after death there might be” (p.36). The Greeks rejected this possibility, as did the Sadducees. Wright goes on to show how the early Christian view of resurrection was distinct from the Jewish view in six ways. And then he discusses the credibility of the resurrection narratives, pointing out that the gospel narratives should sound quite different if they were made up somehow by post-Pauline writers, for if they are post-Pauline we would expect them to try to prove what they were saying from the Old Testament, but Old Testament references are not prominent in the resurrection narratives of the four gospel writers. Other points that one would not expect from a made up story, but which are there, are the presence of women as the witnesses, and to me quite interesting, the portrait of the risen Jesus as not being luminous, which one might expect if one were casting the story based on Daniel, but as having a body that is in some ways “quite normal.”

Certainly if anyone needs to deal with current Gnostic-revivalism such as “The Gospel of Judas” or the da Vinci Code industry, this and other works by N.T. Wright is the place to go for solid rather than haphazard answers.

But all this is the infrastructure Wright’s wonderful exposition of the hope of the resurrection of the body. Someone told me that this book is controversial. Certainly I do not agree with everything in his a-millennial panorama, but that is not the part I want to praise. What came to me was for the first time hearing an echo of my own decades long frustration at the view of heaven and the afterlife that is virtually a zeitgeist in churches, both evangelical and otherwise, a view that when we die we go to heaven and that’s it, wonderful stuff ever after, streets of gold and all that. The vivid teaching of 1 Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4 seems to elude, or confuse, not only people, but pastors.

And here I will say something personal, which I seldom do in this blog, but as someone who has lost people whom he loved more than life itself, the comfort of heaven is only comfort if there is a resurrection, for if it is only heaven, then death has won. The comforting words that Paul encourages us to seize are that “the dead in Christ shall rise” and then “we shall forever be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4: 16,17).

Wright masterfully integrates all of this with an a-millennial view (never tagged as such) of the impact of the resurrection on the new heaven and the new earth. The tie in for this blog is that A. B. Simpson’s pre-millennial eschatology was not a dispensational pre-millennialism, partly because that view while being developed during his career, had not gained the kind of force that it did in ensuing decades. Instead, Simpson saw the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the explanatory feature for the millennium, the presence of Jesus the resurrected Lord would in the millennial age be the power by which all that was dreamed of by the prophets for a better world will come to pass. Wright calls his own eschatology “inaugural” which brings us within shouting distance of Simpson’s view that even now we can experience the power of the resurrection in our holy walk – sanctification – and in experiences of signs and wonders, most notably, the healing of the body.

I can’t think of a better book to read as we approach Easter, the day of hope and joy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Tipping Point for Christianity?

In The Tipping Point, which continues to be on The New York Times best seller list, Malcolm Gladwell poses the question: why do some things, whether they are consumer preferences for a particular brand of shoes, or epidemics such as AIDS, suddenly jump from minor status to the thing that huge numbers of people are buying or being infected with? This is a pop sociology/marketing book that has some pointed (pun intended) insights for the Christian apologists who desires the news about God’s Kingdom to spread. But, this is also a discussion that should cause reflection in both Christian apologetics and Kingdom communication.

First Gladwell sets forth “the law of the few”, the few being people whom he calls connectors, people who have formed brief but solid relationships with other people, lots of other people. From this I learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you want to be a person who has influence, having many acquaintances is more important that having a few close relationships. That is not to say, of course, that a person should not have close relationships. It is to say that connectors reach way out beyond that circle so that scores, perhaps hundreds of people are acquainted with them and operate with them at a level of trust. Think of connectors as people sitting in the middle of a large web of acquaintances and when they shake the web everyone, even those on the edge, gets the message.

Perhaps one of the problems with Christians is they have become more and more isolated from everyone in common life. The program church has many advantages, but one of its disadvantages is that it totally absorbs the life of its key workers leaving little time or energy for them to coach or play kids sports, to sit on school councils, or to join in meaningful community activities. Thus, those who could be connectors are unplugged from the wider populace. It’s not much good to have an apologetic if we don’t know anyone to speak it to.

Gladwell also brings up the “stickiness factor” as to why some ideas or things take hold in the general populous, that is, some ideas seem to capture the imagination, they become part of common speech and are uncritically accepted as true. This concept is a bit harder for the apologist to apply, for even though we all know that an idea needs to stick there is no way to know ahead of time what will and what won’t stick, and the apologist may or may not ever figure out why one idea stuck and another fell onto the road just at the moment it was needed.

An example (you may love or hate this) is the phrase “purpose driven life.” Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life gave the invocation at the inauguration of Barack Obama. Back in the autumn of 2008 Rick Warren invited the then candidate, along with others, to Saddleback Church for a forum, and they all came. Why? Because “purpose driven life” had stuck, not only as a bestselling book, but as a phrase that has imbeded itself in our culture. While there is no way to know ahead of time what will and what won’t stick, we need to realize that as communicators – whether it be by writing, verbal, film, or whatever, stickiness needs to be part of the goal in the crafting of the communication. And, it needs to be part of the prayer of preparation, for while we can never know ahead of time, God does know what will stick, and what won’t.

The last thing I wish to comment on is Gladwell's discussion of “the power of context”. This is really worth study because it applies very much to the apologetic situation and is related to what Newbigin discusses as plausibility structures. Gladwell uses as an example the problem that the New York subway system had with shrinking ridership.People began to stop using the subways because it had become commonly believed that they were unsafe. Think of Gladwell taking Newbigin’s discussion on plausibility structures and applying it to this problem. The people who ran the New York subway system saw that they had to change the reality and also the perception of safety in a way that people understood the change. So, they demonstrated that they were restoring law and order by getting rid of graffiti and by stopping people from cheating on fares (fare jumping). When people saw that trains were clean and that young hoods weren’t jumping over the turn styles the message that it was once again safe to ride the subway began to take hold, and ridership increased.

Likewise, we are living in a time where a great deal of effort is being spent by proponents of secularism to create the perception that, in accordance with the plausibility structure of the western world in 2009, Christianity is in fact implausible. Christianity is an unsafe place, don’t take any rides there -- that is the message. Certainly it is important to deal with this on a logical basis, but that might be like the subway people trotting out bar graphs in news conferences and using them to convince commuters that it is just as safe on the subway as it is walking down the street. Logic has its place, but perception is powerful, and so facts and logic are not enough of a context to establish plausibility. As part of our effort at communication we must lend a hand at seeking to show that Christianity is plausible in ways that are perceptible, for social context is a major influence on the conclusions that people draw.

What steps would help us to re-establish a plausibility context? To do this we need to move beyond the obvious generalities such as show compassion and love. I think these are the key, but we really have to figure out how that should work out and how to offer a cup of water in the name of Jesus.

I recommend that church leaders read Gladwell’s book in order to glean insight into communication of the message of

Sunday, January 11, 2009


2 Corinthians 10:4-5 4
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

An aspect of apologetics that is sometimes overlooked is its role in spiritual warfare. For some time thinking and discussion about spiritual warfare has been limited to exorcism and praying against the influence of the devil on a person’s life or on particular events. All of that is proper and worthy of careful spiritual consideration. But there is more.

1 Timothy 4:1
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons( Peneumasin planois kai didaskaliais daimonion)

Perhaps it is part of our enlightenment mindset, so deeply bred in us all, that we want to appear gracious and loving in our defense of Christianity, and to do so we wish at all times to show respect and honor to those who oppose us. This is proper. However,we must be careful lest we simultaneously be lead to discount the reality that the teaching we are up against is not respectful, but has been viciously constructed for the sole purpose of entrapping people in Satan’s web.

The truly great apologists understood this and taught it. Again I will refer to C.S. Lewis as an example. Spiritual warfare runs through his writings, from works of imagination to the great teaching works.

Lewis’ teaching works are carefully constructed arguments addressed to the skeptic, or at least to the inquiring mind. He, gracious apologist that he was, always assumes that his readers mind is open. However, in Miracles we learn that he believed that reason is in itself a miracle, that reason is not part of nature, but part of supernature. Thus, when the apologist reasons with people, she is addressing that part of the listener which is from beyond this natural world.

In a truly bold stroke Lewis ups the stakes by inserting many of his arguments into his works of imagination as intellectual encounters between a diabolical presence and a soul. In Perelandra Ransom battles with the Un-man for days as Weston carries on a protracted temptation of the Lady. Ransom then realizes that spiritual warfare must, in this case, be more than spiritual, and begins to fight physically. But then, the persona of Weston is allowed to appear, and the dialogue morphs into a moan about the horrors of the afterlife, and ends with Ransom telling him to “Say a child’s prayer if you can’t say a man’s. Repent your sins…”

After almost drowning, Ransom finds that : “Suddenly and irresistibly, like an attack by tanks, that whole view of the universe which Weston (if it were Weston) had so lately preached to him took all but complete possession of his mind. He seemed to see that he had been living all his life in a world of illusion.”

Here Lewis suddenly speaks of that part of apologetics as spiritual warfare that we would rather not discuss, the warfare of Satan for the soul of the apologist. In an essay he once confessed that after presenting the case for Christianity in an open forum, it was not infrequent that he would himself have doubts. But, he knew the source of those doubts. Ransom hears a noise coming up through the hole in the floor of the cave. “He fixed his eyes upon the dark opening from which he had himself just emerged. And then—‘I thought as much,’ said Ransom. And sure enough, out from the hole crawled the Un-man, and the battle, begun already in Ransom’s mind, begins again and continues until Ransom conquers.

I could go on and talk about the encounters in Narnia, especially between the Witch – arguing that what is present is the only reality and that everything else is mere fancy -- and Jill, Scrubb (Eustace), the Prince and the sturdy Puddleglum whose words “had a rousing affect” and brought the children out of their daze. (The Silver Chair)

But the greatest presentation of spiritual warfare is of course The Screwtape Letters. What is tempting (pun intended) about Screwtape is to think of it only as an imaginative portrayal of our inner moral dialogue. But Lewis makes clear in his introduction that he does believe in a real devil. Thus, this moral discourse truly does make us aware of the devil’s devices. And these devices are not only moral, but are aimed to keep the soul from faith.

The point here is Lewis’ conviction that apologetics does not occur in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Theoretically, the on-going dialogue of science should occur in such a vacuum, that is, devoid of prejudice, self-interest, prejudice, or emotion. Apologetics in an enlightenment framework may mistakenly be framed this way, as simply an exchange, carried on by gentle people. In reality however apologetics is anything but, for in every apologetic encounter the eternal destiny of people is at stake, and because of that four parties are present: the apologist, the one with whom the apologist is in dialogue with, the Holy Spirit, and Satan. The arguments that the apologist is seeking to counter are not simply arguments of well intentioned people, they are diabolical arguments, designed for eternal harm.

Thus, for us to do apologetics in this time requires us to again learn the discipline of spiritual warfare. To learn prayer, to learn discernment, and to learn the power of holiness. This is our calling.