Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Next Christendom

Several years ago, a friend took an extensive trip through Asia. He met a number of missionaries and took a lot of pictures. When he came back, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation (complete with pictures) of his trip. As best I remember, the main point of his presentation was, "These people are deprived and their lives would be a lot better if they were more like us." I don't think the missionaries told him this, but this probably expressed my friend's bias about the real purpose of missions. His idea was that "missions" was something we do to people, and much of that involved their adopting our culture.

Today we find ourselves in a unique situation. Where Christianity has taken hold in Asia, Africa, and South America, believers are articulating their faith in ways that reflect their own traditions and culture. This is a dynamic and exciting movement of the Spirit. Philip Jenkins has written about this in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. God is working in unusual ways in what we have often called the Third World (or "two-thirds" world). The reality of this, however, is that we may not be entirely comfortable with some of those expressions of the faith.

Of course, this is not the first time this has happened. When the Christian message began to be preached throughout the Roman Empire, its proponents had to grapple with the Hellenistic mindset. This meant that they often appropriated ideas, metaphors, and philosophy that was part of that culture. Was this a bad thing? Only if you think that presenting the Gospel in a way that people can understand and appropriate it is wrong. We are Christians today because they were able to do this.

What is happening among our brothers and sisters of the Southern Hemisphere is not a bad model for those of us in North America. We are called to engage with our culture and find new ways to present the faith so that it will be heard by nonbelievers. This is the challenge that we face. We can learn from how others are doing this. Maybe we need to be more like them!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Wave of the Future

In 1949 Popular Mechanics magazine stated that "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." In 1977 Kenneth Olsen, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., said, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." Today, there are probably over 300 million personal computers in use in the United States. You are using one of them right now.

Twenty years ago, who would have imagined the impact of personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, and wireless networks on our lives? We sometimes complain about them, but that is when they don't work as well as we have become accustomed to them working!

There is a saying, "What seems like only a ripple today can become the wave of the future." As we approach the start of a new year, this causes me to ask, "What new thing will impact our lives in the future in ways that we least expect?" What machine, process, or movement in its infancy today will change significantly the way that we think, act, and live?

As a believer, I tend to think that the Holy Spirit is doing some things in the church today that are peripheral to most of us, but things that will have significant impact in coming days. What do you think? Do you detect something happening that has the potential for this kind of impact? How will it change the way that we relate to each other? To God? To the world?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Risky Business

The Bible teaching ministry (usually called Sunday School) in the local church is a fascinating enterprise. In most Baptist churches, it is not as structured as it was 20 years ago. There is more flexibility in grouping (often interest or lifestyle based rather than grouping by ages), more diversity in curriculum choices, and more use of media and outside resource people. There is, however, one persistent feature of the Sunday School in the local church that has changed little--the dependence on lay leadership to carry it out.

I have been exposed to a variety of Sunday School teachers over the years, and I must say that the best teachers I have known were (and are) lay people with no theological training and limited formal education. My own father is one example. Because my grandfather was killed when my father was in his early teens, my Dad had to work to support his mother and younger brother. He was not able to complete high school with his class, but later received his diploma through GED. He never went to college and would have been called a "blue collar" worker. Despite (or perhaps because of this) he was a great reader, hungry to learn, and a great student of the Bible. One of my earliest memories is of my Dad telling me stories of Old Testament figures, stories that brought these people to life. At a certain point in their spiritual journeys, my parents made a recommitment of their lives to God and began working with married young adults in SS--my Dad as a teacher and my mother as the outreach/ministry person. Dad was a good teacher. He studied his lesson, he asked good questions of the text, and he applied it to the lives of his class members. Dad was never a deacon, a church program leader, or an usher, but he made an impact on the lives of many people through his teaching.

There are a lot of people like him in our churches. They are the ones who make our Christian education program work. Without them, it would not happen.

Now I know that not everyone is a good teacher, and we sometimes wind up with people presenting unusual interpretations, voicing pet peeves, and promoting personal opinions in their classes. This is one of the risks we take in giving lay persons this role in the church.

But isn't this what "the priesthood of all believers" is about? The individual approaches the scriptures for himself or herself and asks God to provide understanding and insight. Of course, the other side of this is that other believers have an equal opportunity to accept or reject that teaching. Bible study is best done in community with the give and take that happens when each person brings his or her life experiences and questions to the table. It is a communal activity.

It's risky business, but it's still a good idea!

Friday, December 01, 2006

What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?--Christian Formation

When I use the term "Christian formation," I intend it to be an umbrella term encompassing ideas like Christian education, discipleship, spiritual formation, and catechesis. Basically, this is the process by which a believer is not only instructed in the faith but transformed into a practitioner of the faith. Of course, this process is never complete but it is one in which every follower of Christ should be involved throughout his or her life.

How will the church practice such formation of believers fifty years from now? I imagine that it will take a variety of forms, but my hunch is that we will engage more in an "action-learning" approach to Christian formation. There will be an intentional effort to link the believer's growth in Christ with her or his daily life. As one encounters various challenges in life, these challenges will become the raw material for reflection and learning.

The sources that ground such reflection and learning might be best characterized by what has been called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Although John Wesley may never have consciously articulated it in this way, he seems to have used four sources in coming to theological conclusions:
  • Scripture - the Holy Bible;
  • Tradition - the two millenia history of the church (and its present practices as well);
  • Reason - rational thinking;
  • Experience - our personal and communal journey with Christ.

In order for this formation to take place, believers in the future will be more deeply invested in the community of faith. This will find expression not only in the larger congregation but in relationship with an on-going small group of fellow believers and perhaps a one-on-one relationship with a spiritual director. Just as we have seen the emergence of personal trainers and life coaches, I think we will see a greater role for spiritual coaches in the future.

What about curriculum? We have the entire historical archive of the church to draw upon as well as the stories of believers and non-believers who struggle with life issues. The curriculum will not be as important as the individual struggles that the believer brings to the discussion and context in which those experiences are processed.

The next few years offer rich opportunities for bringing together both classic and contemporary modes of learning to form healthy, growing, ministering followers of Jesus Christ.