Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Church Turning Us Into Nice People?

October 20, 2014 | By: 0 Comments


The other day someone told me about a discussion they had with a friend who said that they were leaving their church to join another church. Fair enough I thought, I hear this a lot. What caught my attention however is that the church that this person was leaving, I would describe as being missional and the church that they had decided to start attending  as more of an ‘attractional’ model of church. Why the move from missional to attractional I wondered? When I spoke with my friend further, apparently the missional church was small, met in someone’s home and the regular gatherings were too confrontational for this person. Once again I probed deeper. Too confrontational? I found out that even though the church was small it had managed to become a community of people from various backgrounds and socio-economic status. When time came in their gathering for sharing about their lives, many of those who were living a life of poverty told of their difficulties. This person who was economically privileged comparatively speaking, found it disruptive and uncomfortable to hear some of the things that were being shared. This person felt out of place, guilty and awkward in that church. They then started attending another church which was larger and the person said it was a church where they could remain somewhat removed, which had challenging messages and good worship.+
I’m sure that I am simplifying this ‘case study’ and that there were a lot of other factors that influenced my friend’s departure from that church. However, this encounter has puzzled me, unnerved me and again made me wonder with exasperation what the church is all about. What I do find myself asking sometimes is this; is church merely  turning us into nice people?  By that I’m asking if  belonging to a church is forming us into people who attend church gatherings, serve on ministry teams, listen to messages which are just challenging enough, are soothed by contemporary worship then we leave perhaps with the intention to do good works and tell our friends about Jesus? On the one hand there might be nothing wrong with this but on the other, I wonder if this formation process, which is partly unintentional, is bypassing a deeper transformation that still has to happen in the lives of many Christians. Could some of the practices in church community even be stopping this transformation from happening?+
Why do we see many mature Christians still  displaying deep patterns of racism, sexism, disregard for the poor, consumerism, hedonism and individualism in their thinking and behavior? My question here is not coming from a place of cynicism, nor is it an attempt to berate anyone. I also struggle with the ‘isms’ mentioned. My question actually comes from a desire to see the church truly breathe and practice the radical nature of the values of the kingdom of God. In the example that I gave above, it seems like my friend in Christ found that as they were confronted with the reality of poverty, they could not tolerate the dissonance that this caused within them and as a result they went to join a church where they could experience a little more comfort. Could this be an idol of comfort that has taken hold of a heart which is stopping a deeper transformation from taking place? If that person had stayed in that missional community and worked through their guilt and discomfort could this have led to further alignment with the values of the kingdom? Values such as koinonia, humility, service, kenosis and in effect, godly love? Would my friend have experienced the joy of ‘communitas’  rather than perhaps superficial community? Could the Holy Spirit have been at work in such a disruptive context in order to form this Christian deeper into the image of Jesus?+

What constitutes a church that is forming people into disciples who express the radical values of the kingdom of God?

I don’t think that anyone would argue with this point in terms of our formation into disciples of Jesus; as we continually receive and believe in the love of God through our Lord Jesus, we transform into his image which means we practice that radical love towards one another. The trajectory is then, the love of God is shown and given to us, we believe it and receive it, then we practice that love towards one another. John describes that process like this, ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16).+
What would be some impediments to the practice of this godly, radical love which ought to produce deep transformation in the life of the Christ follower? I have found the book Godly Love: Impediments and Possibilities edited by Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong helpful here. It focuses on that question of why there are not more radical expressions of the love of God (which leads to the manifestation of kingdom values), particularly in the Christian community, if we have in fact been shown and have received the love of God. Several of the essays are fascinating and helped me to think through the question above: What constitutes a church that is forming people into disciples who express the radical values of the kingdom of God?+
A church like this, through its gathered and scattered practices, firstly makes disciples of Jesus aware of the impediments to receiving and practicing godly love. In other words, that church makes people conscious of the ‘vices’ of our age such as consumerism, sexism, racism, individualism so that people are not blinded by these false worldviews that take us captive. Secondly, that church helps people to develop and be accountable to habitual life-giving practices that shape a kingdom people, which counter the practices that are forming people into narcissists,  consumerists, racists, individualists etc. I don’t think a church is taking discipleship seriously if they do not develop such communally agreed upon practices for formation. Thirdly, this church does not recoil from creating or resting in spaces which may cause discomfort simply because internal paradigms are shifting. The Holy Spirit is at work for our transformation in disruption, awkward moments and pain.+
I think any church whether attractional or missional, which engages with these three things and more, will help disciples of Jesus become not just nice people but a people who truly move towards being Christians who live and breathe the upside down nature of the kingdom of God. +

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Re-Visiting The Shack (2): Forward to Ch.4

Mackenzie Allen Phillips (protagonist of The Shack) seems a pretty ordinary sort of guy, according to his best friend and ghost-writer, Willie. A bit reserved, enough to hide his intelligence from the casual acquaintance, Mack is a good man.  A respectable man.  Yet also a man hurt and haunted by his past.  A violent alcoholic father had driven Mack from home at age thirteen, but not before the young boy had spiked all the liquor in the home with insect poison.  And he carries the guilt of that act with him.

Mack, according to Willie, shares our culture’s view of Goddddd to some degree.  “. . . he suspects (God) is brooding, distant, and aloof” (10).  He has a love-hate relationship with him (10).  Mack’s wife, Nan, addresses God as “Papa.”  This is too familiar for Mack who calls God “God” and shies away from interacting with him, preferring just to affirm that God knows what he is doing and doesn’t need our worrying or nagging (21-22). Willie characterizes Mack’s relation to God as “wide” while his wife’s Nan’s is “deep” (11).

An insight important to the story and vital to its readers comes when Missy pesters Mack to tell the legend of the Indian maiden who had saved her tribe and her fiancĂ© from mortal illness by sacrificing her life to the Great Spirit at the prescribed place for the life and health of the rest of the tribe.  At bedtime Missy asks Mack if the Great Spirit in the legend was God.  He allows that is probably true.  Then Missy asks:   “Then how come he’s so mean?” (31). Why did he make the maiden jump off the cliff to her death?

Mack struggled a bit for an answer.  Then he gives a theologically impeccable response:  “Sweetheart, Jesus didn’t think his daddy was mean.  He thought his daddy was full of love and loved him very much.  His daddy didn’t make him die.  Jesus chose to die because he and his daddy love you and me and everyone in the world” (31).  In other words, Mack affirms that God is no Goddddd!  Yet in his gut he really believes he is!  Proper theology is no barrier against the theology we actually live by.  Unless the two are the same, our actual theology, the one that directs what we really think, feel, and decide to do, will override our theological correctness every time!

The Shack tells the story of Mack’s transformation from merely “wide” to “wide and way deep” (11) in relation to God.

-from Goddddd to Papa.

-from merely believing in God to actually living in and with him. 

-from being rooted in Goddddd to rooting out Goddddd and resting in the inexhaustible love of Papa. And the cost of that transformation.   

And it begins with a call.

The Call

When we meet Mack in the story he is engulfed, entombed might be a better word, in a Great Sadness.  It befell him seven years prior to the time of the writing of the story.  The abduction and murder of Mack’s youngest daughter Missy on a family camping trip is the cause of the Great Sadness. This matrix of anger, depression, self-recrimination, and frustration became a life-sucking force taking all the color and texture out of life.

One day he finds an envelope in his mailbox with no postmark or return address.  The note inside was Papa’s invitation for Mack to meet him at the shack (the “vortex of The Great Sadness,” 74) the next weekend.  You can imagine all that that dredged up in Mack!

In the years since Mack had adopted a stoic, unfeeling, attitude toward life and God (not an unusual attitude for adult American males!).  This, of course, only further widened the gulf between Mack and God.  Mack even rejected Goddddd, Goddddd’s religion, and all the little religious social clubs that made precious little difference in people’s lives and the world (66).  He was tired of the God that had been reduced to words (the Bible) and most especially the God who had done him no good when he needed him the most.

Yet this scandalous, hurtful, and possibly even dangerous invitation (it might be Missy’s killer seeking to kill him too!) kept working on Mack.  His troubled relation to God remained alive precisely because he refused to settle for Goddddd and was indeed an expression of his search the real God and real relationship with him.  This is why the “call” from Papa irresistibly pulled him to go to that terrible place the next weekend.  “. . . in spite of his anger and depression, Mack knew that he needed some answers.  He realized he was stuck” (66).

If we are made by and for God, our lives are ineradicably marked by our origin.  We are indelibly marked by God’s image to live for him and his purpose for us.  Even in rebellion against God we do not lose this mark or evade God’s call and claim on us.  Neither rebellion, indifference, or misplaced passion separates us from God (as Mack is soon to discover).  Our lives are, at bottom, our (often distorted) efforts to come to terms with the dignity an vocation proper for us, an ongoing (even if unacknowledged) conversation with God about our meaning and significance.

Mack has done the best he can a part from a living and growing relationship with God to carve out his place in the world.  The Great Sadness of his childhood cast a pall over his life, intensified and dwarfed by the even Greater Sadness of Missy’s abduction and murder. Mack, in mid-life, can no longer stomach Goddddd and the church.  But that does not mean he has turned away from Papa and genuine life with him.  The death of Godddd opens the possibility of the resurrection of Papa and life with him for Mack.  And that’s what the Call is all about.

“How Come God Is So Mean?”

We all live under a Great Sadness, our desire to live apart from God, by ourselves, for ourselves, and through our own power.  God never acquiesces in this, however.  His relentless pursuit, even of those like C. S. Lewis who devoutly hope never to meet him, constitutes our hope and destiny.

Thus, Papa invites Mack for a weekend together.  Mack’s acceptance of Papa’s invite foregrounds the issue that threatens and poisons humanity’s relation to God.  It’s as old as the Garden of Eden and as current as the latest counseling session.  The snake in the garden insinuated against God’s goodness and it has been at issue ever since.  

-Can God be trusted? 

-Is God good?

Here is “the” question at the core of our beings, our history, our destiny.  It is the “the” question of The Shack as well.  It is previewed by Missy’s question to Mack after he retold the children the legend of the Indian maiden (31):  “then how come (God’s) so mean?” The rest of the story addresses this question in a variety of ways.





Barth’s Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit

A longstanding criticism of Karl Barth has been that his christocentrism so overpowers his theology that pneumatology often seems to take a theological back-seat. This was especially noted by Robert Jenson’s famous article cleverly entitled, “You wonder where the Spirit went” [Pro Ecclesia II (1993): 296–304.] Jenson, and others, while highly sympathetic to Barth’s theology, nevertheless are concerned that Barth’s christological centre is so unmoving that sometimes all we hear is “Jesus Christ” when we would expect to be hearing “Holy Spirit.” This critique focused especially upon Barth’s pneumatology as evident in the Church Dogmatics (CD). [For a similar critique, see Eugene Rogers, “The Eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth,” In Conversing with Barth, 173–90. London: Ashgate, 2004.]
In reviewing Barth’s chapter in Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “The Spirit,” I observe that Barth employs a form of speaking about the Spirit–a kind of pneumatological rhetoric–that is consistent with the way he speaks of the Holy Spirit in the CD. The good thing is that Barth’s method at work in this short chapter in ET is, I believe, representative of how he speaks of the Spirit more generally in the (much longer!) CD. The chapter in ET, in other words, can serve as a primer for understanding Barth’s rhetoric of the Spirit more broadly in his theology.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nine Things Everyone Should Do When Reading the Bible

A few simple habits to build into your Bible reading.
Very few of us have the inclination or interest in diving into three years of seminary education in order to get a better handle on the Scriptures. However, every believer should long to get a better grip on the Bible. The good news is that it does not require a graduate education to do so.
At seminary, I learned Greek, Hebrew and all manner of intimidating subjects ending in –etics, but some of the things that have stayed with me most clearly were not things from textbooks, but off-the-cuff comments from teachers who had walked with God far longer than I had. They were post-it sized truths, easily understandable and readily applicable. Years after graduating, these are the things I still remember.

1. Read ‘King’ When You See ‘Christ.’

Christ, or Messiah, means “anointed one,” and priests and kings were anointed. Substituting "King Jesus" for "Christ Jesus" when reading draws attention to the fact that Christ was not Jesus' last name, but in fact His title: one of great honor and esteem. Making that one switch alone breathes new life into reading the New Testament.

2. Read ‘You’ Differently.

Almost all the "you" words in the New Testament are plural you's rather than singular you's. The Southern "y'all" expresses it beautifully: the epistles are written to believers corporately, not believers alone. This does not diminish personal responsibility at all, though. If anything, it heightens it: we pray together, believe together, suffer together, raise the armor of God together. All y'all.

3. If You See a ‘Therefore,’ Find Out What It’s There For.

Therefore, take note in bibles where paragraphs are divided up with headings inserted by editors. If the paragraph begins with "therefore,” you might have to pick up a bit earlier to understand the context.

4. Realize That Not All ‘If’ Statements Are The Same.

This was a watershed one for me: not all "ifs" are the same. Conditional “ifs” are not the same as causal “ifs.” Some IF statements are always tied to the THEN one (if you stand in the rain, then you will get wet). Others have more risk involved: the IF statement is necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about the THEN one (if you study for an exam, then you will pass).
This makes the world of difference in studying Romans 8: "If you are led by the spirit of God, you are children of God." I had always read that and been afraid I wasn't spirit-led enough to be considered God's child. It was a glory-hallelujah moment to realize this was the first type of if: "If you are led by the Spirit of God (and you ARE!), then you are also always and forever His child.” What a difference!

5. Recognize That Lamenting is OK.

Yes, there is joy and peace and hope in Christ. But true believers still mourn and lament. There is space in the life of faith for complaining, tears, grit and depression. Just look at the Psalms.








Friday, October 17, 2014

Re-Visiting The Shack (1)

The Shack by William P. Young took the Christian world by storm in 2007 and quickly became a worldwide bestseller.  Ostensibly a theodicy – how to understand God’s ways with us in a season of unfathomable and meaningless hurt terror, and grief, it has proven to be far more than that.  Young walks us through a fictional account of his eleven year struggle to deal with a “Great Sadness” that engulfed, stripped him down, and reduced him to mere existence and how he emerged from that maelstrom a new man.  The creativity, energy, depth, and insight of his account bear the marks of one who has met God, the biblical, triune God, been grasped and delivered by him, gripped by his beauty and faithfulness, and drawn close by him in an intimate and life-giving embrace.   None less than Eugene Peterson calls The Shack a Pilgrim’s Progress for our generation.  And he is surely right about that!

In this series of posts I want to revisit The Shack nearly eight years later.  I read it because so many others were reading it and asking me about it.  The same thing had happened a few years earlier with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  That was several hours of my life I’ll never get back!  So I had no idea what to expect and I tried not to prejudge what I’d fnd there.

Even after the terrible and gripping tale of young Missy’s abduction and murder by a serial killer in the first several chapters, I was still had my reservations.  That scenario, after all, would grip and draw in most readers.  But I read on to see what Young had to say about God’s relation to all this horror and grief.

And when Mack (the protagonist) met God at the Shack, I was captured!  When Papa, God the Father, a large black woman, met and embraced Mack on the shack’s porch, I had to read on.  This was going to be either a creative retelling of the gospel or rank, and even silly, heresy.  But I had to find out.

And did I ever!  I found Young’s story the most coherent and compelling of the presence and work of the biblical, that is, triune, God I’ve ever read.  And the most real!  I was pulled in not just with my head but with my whole self.  My life with God was on trial as I read.  I couldn’t put the book down.  I read it one Saturday, taking it with me to the dinner table, the bathroom, and everywhere else I went that day till I finished it.  The horizon of the story and the horizon of my life had merged; Young’s story was mine, in my own way.  The Shack addressed me where I was and pulled me some ways toward where I needed to be.  Its images brought mere concepts to life and unleashed the transforming power of the Spirit in my life in a fuller and deeper way.

On reflection I account the power of Young’ narrative to his reworking of the Christian doctrine of God, his being as always and at the same time Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and attacking and defanging the ubiquitous default deity most of us (Christian or otherwise) assume is the biblical God, the one I call the “God with a Scowl.”  The Goddddd – distant, domineering, demanding, disapproving, and damning.  These strengths far outweigh any other weaknesses critics may find in the story.

These are, in my judgment, the two weakest aspects of the North American Christian version of the gospel.  Lamentably, God as triune and unfaltering loving, are the power source the gospel!  Their absence and distortion in our default cultural view of God go a long way to accounting for the irrelevant powerlessness of the church in our place and time.

I hope my revisiting The Shack will introduce or reintroduce you to this special story. Young’s fictional narrative account of his own “descent into hell” only to find the triune God of the Bible - Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu – there to welcome, comfort, encourage, and deliver him, sound just the notes of the biblical gospel that need to heard loudly and clearly in our time and place.  I pray our God will enliven you with the astonishing reality of both as you encounter again or for the first time William P. Young’s The Shack.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Suburban Captivity of the Church

CULTURE | Tess Holgate
Wednesday 15 October 2014

When Tim Foster made the 15km move from a suburban parish to an urban one, he didn’t anticipate just how much his understanding of the gospel would be challenged. Now the Director of Theological Education and Formation at Ridley College in Melbourne, he has penned his reflections in his new book, The Suburban Captivity of the Church.

Aside from all the cultural differences, Tim says he was struck “by how hostile people were to evangelical Christianity and yet how many of their values were familiar to me from the Bible. There was a real concern for the marginalised, for social justice, for the environment, a real desire for community”.

Observing this forced Tim to reflect on the way he had understood the gospel: “The gospel as I had come to understand it, aligned itself very strongly with suburban values”.

Tim says that the gospel has been so contextualised to the suburban context that the two are inextricably linked. “Suburban people are fundamentally aspirational; what drives them is moving towards a settled, secure and safe existence. The suburban gospel suits this because it gives you eternal security,” Tim says.

According to Tim, this vision is missing a critical element of the gospel: the critique of strongly held values. “It seemed to me that our gospel and church was being held captive to suburban context and values.

“In reducing the gospel to becoming a ticket to heaven, evangelicals have developed a very under-realised view of the Christian life – so it’s all about what happens after I die, it doesn’t shape how I live. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection a new order has come. There’s a new way to be human, a new way to be community, and this new order turns the world upside down. It challenges all of our values”, says Tim.

Foster’s critique of a “punitive” gospel might be challenging for some Christians, who might be focused on keeping the gospel “clear”. In an early chapter of Suburban Captivity he gives case studies of people ranging from “Kate” a heritage architect in the inner city to “Suzie” who lives on a housing estate and encourages us to think how we can engage in their “cultural narratives”. Or to put it in Christian-speak, “how the gospel can enter their lives”. He is saying that we need to understand them so that they can understand us.

The gospel is much more holistic than a simple salvation equation . . .

- See more at:

A View of Scripture from The Shack

In the Forward to William P. Young’s great story The Shack the protagonist Mack’s longtime best friend Willie offers his perspective on Mack’s journey.  He reveals that he is actually the ghost-writer of Mack’s story and that the two of them have spent many, many hours over the story.  He closes his Forward with this comment on their work:

“Memory can be a tricky companion at times . . . and I would not be too surprised, in spite of our concerted effort toward accuracy, if some factual errors and faulty remembrances are reflected in these pages.  They are not intentional.  I can promise you that the conversations and events are recorded as truthfully as Mack can remember them, so please try and cut him a little slack.  As you’ll see, these are not easy things to talk about.” (13)

I rather like that.  If we apply that to scripture, and posit that it is these words, “factual errors and faulty remembrances” included, that God has “commandeered” (John Webster) to reveal himself and “all things necessary for . . . salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith) - for why can God not reveal himself truly even through “factual errors and faulty remembrances,” this seems a perfectly adequate statement that neither claims too much or requires overlooking the humanity of the biblical documents.