Monday, November 30, 2009

Consider the Context

We just returned from a Thanksgiving visit to our son and his family in the San Francisco area. Every time we visit I am struck by the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nature of the population there. I realize, of course, that the same thing is happening on an accelerating scale across the country. When I go to a program at my grandchildren’s elementary school in Tennessee, the principal struggles to pronounce names that are Asian, Hispanic, and Indian.

Churches in my little part of the world are only beginning to address this cultural diversity. Most of the time, the strategy is to create churches that are targeted to a specific racial, ethnic, or language group and translate the North American understanding of the gospel for that group. This ignores the fact that some things do not translate well! Often this strategy does not take into account the vast differences within a particular language group. The strategy also does not consider that we could learn something from dialogue with these groups that might help us to communicate the gospel more effectively to them.

For example, if we consider the experience of certain Hispanics, we might discover that some biblical themes would resonant with their experience. Those who have grown up in virtual slavery would appreciate the liberation themes of Exodus. The oppressed often identify with the struggles that the young church in New Testament times experienced with the Roman Empire.

In working with Asians, we would do well to understand both the cultural impact of their professed faith and the rich tradition of meditation and contemplation we find there. How does the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible address some of the issues with which Buddhism and other oriental religions are concerned? Are there commonalities?

A friend has developed a model that uses teachings in the Koran about Jesus as a beginning point for evangelistic dialogue with Muslims. In so doing, he is using a valuable tool that is readily available to his audience.

We have much work to do if we are to learn how to exegete the biblical message in order to present it in a way that can be understood and embraced by those whose experiences are so different from ours. Of course, we can ignore this opportunity, but such a choice leads to irrelevance and the church cannot afford to be irrelevant in the 21st century.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Take Time to be Thankful

I often get invitations on Facebook to join advocacy groups such as “Keep Christ in Christmas.” This year I have seriously considered setting up on that advocates “Let’s Not Start the Christmas Season until the Day after Thanksgiving.”

There are some, including folks in my own family, who start putting up decorations the second week in November. Some have even already bought all of their presents! (Yes, it is hard to live with people like that.)

I am sure that their efforts are driven by a love for the season (as well as personal industriousness), but I cannot say the same for the stores that start pushing Christmas decorations and gifts on Labor Day. I cannot believe that their enthusiasm is driven by good feelings about the “reason for the season.”

There are two primary reasons that I will hold off on my decorations, Christmas music, and holiday observance until after Thanksgiving. First, I love Thanksgiving. I know that some consider this holiday a capitulation to “civil religion,” but I enjoy the opportunity to stop and be thankful for the blessings of the past year. Our worship service this past Sunday was a good reminder of how God has blessed us and of God’s continuing presence with us every day—certainly something for which to be thankful.

Second, this coming Sunday, the first after Thanksgiving, is the first Sunday of Advent. I have come to appreciate the rhythms of this part of the liturgical year. We are reminded of the meaning of hope, love, joy, and peace for Christians around the world. We are prepared for the coming of Messiah. By reading the Common Lectionary texts for the season, we join millions around the world in meditating on these blessings.

I’m not going to start that Facebook group, but I am planning to enjoy Thanksgiving before turning my attention to the coming of the One who give me reason to be thankful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Church is Like a . . .

You’ve heard the story of the blind men who encountered an elephant. Each touched only one part and then generalized about the nature of the beast based on this partial knowledge. They variously described it as a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan or rope, depending upon where they touched. Each developed his own metaphor based on the partial knowledge they had of the subject.

Metaphors are powerful tools. In fact, researcher Andrew Ortony once commented, “Metaphors are necessary, not just nice.” Rightly used, metaphors are powerful tools for learning and change. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor can shift the way that a person perceives reality.

We can see the power (and limitation) of metaphor when we select words to describe the church. Many churches describe themselves as “family.” This works most of the time, but some people have had very negative family experiences—broken relationships, abuse, isolation—that color how they see family. The idea of the church as an “army” has been very popular in years past, but as a veteran who served in an unpopular war, the word carries very negative connotations.

Findley Edge used terms like “hospital” or “seminary” to describe the church. These can be taken either in a positive or negative light. The Apostle Paul, of course, described the church as a “body.” Others think of it as a “garden” where believers can be nourished and bear fruit.

My concern is that we not rush too quickly to embrace just one metaphor to describe the church because, like the blind men, our perspective is often limited to our own experiences. The church is much richer and more nuanced than the experiences of one person or even a handful of people.

We would do well to listen to the stories that others tell about the church and build our list of metaphors. Each reflects some aspect of reality without providing the whole picture.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

An Environment for Growth

I can remember the day well. It was May 1970. The mover had packed up all of our worldly goods for the move from Fort Worth, Texas, to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I climbed into the station wagon (loaded down with clothes and other things we would need immediately). Rita (great with child) and our daughter, Sherry, stayed behind with friends. They would fly to Nashville later after I got the house set up with help from my parents. I made a loop around the campus and said farewell to Seminary Hill, not expecting to return anytime soon! I had earned my degree, been called to my first place of ministry, and could leave all that behind.

After only a few months, I realized that my education was not over. I soon began to encounter situations in teaching, counseling, and administration that I had not anticipated. Seminary helped me to develop many skills I put into use immediately—planning, preaching, and research. At the same time, I quickly discovered that I needed help to be a more effective minister, and I began to search for people and learning opportunities that could help me with the challenges that I faced. Did I have feelings of inadequacy? I probably did at first, but I soon realized that there was no way that seminary could have prepared me for the specific context in which I found myself.

I was fortunate to find the help I needed. This was not true for some of my contemporaries who either left the ministry in the first five years or began moving through a series of pastorates, failing to connect in any of them.

Hopefully, ministers have come to realize that learning is a lifelong process. Seminaries have also discovered that they can continue to provide support and resources for their alumni after they complete their formal education. One of the initiatives that Pinnacle Leadership Associates is undertaking is the First Call Project. We hope to partner with seminaries and funders to provide ministers beginning their first full-time positions with the “just in time” learning and support to work effectively in their settings.

This is just one piece of the puzzle, of course. Ministers must be proactive in developing an environment that will nurture and support them in their daily work. Family provides some of this, but we cannot expect our spouses and children to provide everything we need to be effective ministers! We need to find support groups, community resources, continuing education programs, formal degree programs, reading and internet resources, and other emerging opportunities for personal and professional development.

Where are you in the process? There is help available. Don’t hesitate to begin developing your own environment for growth.

The Age of the Unthinkable

You may be interested in this video by Joshua Cooper Ramo introducing his book

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Getting a Different Perspective

I just completed reading Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable. Ramo is the managing director of Kissinger Associates, a former editor of Time Magazine, and a China analyst. Ramo’s thesis is that we live in a “revolutionary age,” defined by problems (such as terrorism, financial crisis, global warming and the AIDS pandemic) whose complexity, unpredictability and interconnectedness increasingly defy our efforts at control. Taking a page from writers like Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, he uses historical, contemporary, and personal vignettes to both illustrate the situation and to support his approach to dealing with the situation.

So why does a person who is interested in “building up the Body of Christ” in the 21st century read a secular book like this?

I picked up this book because it was recommended by Alan Roxburgh, one of the most creative thinkers I have encountered on the missional church and missional leadership. Roxburgh introduced me to the concept of “discontinuous change”—just because we know what has come before, we cannot necessarily predict where we are going next. Ramo’s approach blends in well with Roxburgh’s thesis.

Roxburgh understands that we as Christians can learn a great deal from persons in a number of fields who are struggling to understand the world we find ourselves in. Those people don’t have to be believers to share ideas and strategies that may benefit the church. We often find people like Ramo and others who are thinking along parallel tracks, dealing with similar issues, and suggesting approaches that may have applicability to the church.

I think we can learn a great deal from reading outside our usual areas of study. We can learn from literature, film, drama, political science, and the hard sciences. Looking at things from another’s perspective can change or sharpen our own.

I encourage you to “get out of your box” and take a look at what others are doing. You might be surprised at what you learn.