Monthly Archives: April 2014

A New Kind of Passover

Today, something happened in me that hasn’t really happened before. It wasn’t something big; it was actually small. A little light that flickered into existence, a tiny glow that warmed me through.

I discovered the beauty of ritual for the first time.

I attended a church I visit once in a while, but have never gone to on a regular basis. Their Good Friday service seemed more appealing to me than my home church (which apparently consisted of a musical about Christ’s death and resurrection), so I decided to go.

The guest speaker was a Messianic Jew who walked us through all the different elements of the Jewish Passover meal. She told us about how a Jewish family would purge their household of yeast, which represents sin. She told us about the unleavened bread, which the father of the family would break apart, wrap in a cloth, and hide for the children to search out later.

She told us about the hyssop branch that the Israelites used to spread the blood of a spotless lamb to protect their first born sons from the angel of death. And she told us about the horse radish, the sour food they consume in remembrance of their slaver in Egypt.

Then she told us what it all meant, how every single element of the Passover meal points to Jesus. Through the blood he shed, we too can find purification from sin, just as the Jewish home was purified of yeast. The process by which the father hid the wrapped and broken bread of course signifies the death and resurrection of Jesus, as does the sacrifice of the perfect lamb. Some of this was new to me, and some of it wasn’t; but hearing about it all together, how the Passover is unified in its celebration of the Messiah, was beautiful.

And then of course, we learned about the bread and the wine, the moment where Jesus went off script and built his own words upon the tradition of Passover. When he broke the bread and poured the wine and spoke over them, he did not invoke the past of Judaism, the moments to remember with joy and sorrow.

He invoked the future. He made the Passover come alive. “This isn’t just bread,” he said. “It is my body.” “And this is not wine, but my blood shed for you.” The elements became a beautiful metaphor by which we commemorate the most powerful story that ever existed, the story of God becoming man and paying a price no man would pay.

And when I stepped forward after the service to receive the bread and the wine, I remembered the fullness of this. Jesus, in his Last Supper with his disciples, infused an old tradition with the New Covenant, and it is such a beautiful thing to think that this is what I commemorate when I consume the elements.

So I feel as though I’ve discovered a value in rituals such as communion—and even the whole Passover meal!—that I had never known before. And isn’t that what the Resurrection is all about, God creating good from darkness, beauty from ashes, new life from death?

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A New Wineskin for the Gospel?

 Image Credit

It’s been weeks since the World Vision scandal happened, but I haven’t been able to work up the heart to write about it until now. It was such a terrible situation that disheartened me like no other culture war scandal has, and I wanted to wait until the visceral reaction had given way to a more studious, thoughtful attitude about everything that happened.

First, let me briefly outline the situation. On March 24, the magazine Christianity Today announced that World Vision USA had decided to amend its employment requirements to allow individuals in same-sex relationships to work for World Vision. They were clear that this was not a theological statement affirming gay marriage, but rather a neutral one that sought to treat married couples consistently. It was a courageous decision, one that the board claimed to have prayed over and considered for years.

And then, of course, the storm erupted. Christians across the nation were outraged at the decision World Vision had made. In the course of two days, the organization received an abundance of hate mail. After all was said and done, approximately 10,000 children lost their sponsorships. Let me say that again. Ten thousand children were dropped from sponsorship so that Christians all over the United States could make a statement about how wrong World Vision’s decision was. This is 10,000 futures altered tragically, 10,000 mouths that will go unfed, 10,000 little boys and girls who will ask why? and have no answer in return.

It fills me with such rage to think about it, to think about how evangelicals have turned children in need into pawns in a culture war, into collateral damage sacrificed on the altar of self-righteous indignation.

The way in which these people rallied to withdraw support from their sponsored children and from World Vision was the worst part of everything that happened, in my opinion. But then, to add insult to injury, World Vision decided to reverse their decision just two days after announcing it! I, along with many others I’m sure, was utterly shocked. Do you remember how I said they had considered their decision prayerfully for years? I don’t care what anyone says, I can’t believe World Vision reversed their decision because they believed it was the right thing to do. Not after they had prayed over their initial decision for so long. No. They had capitulated to the pressures of the conservative right, plain and simple.

Anyway, that is all I’m going to say about that. As I’ve thought about this whole situation over the last several weeks, I’ve realized that dwelling on my disdain for how so many evangelicals reacted won’t make what happened any less painful for everyone involved—for World Vision, for the kids whose needs went unmet, and for the LGBT men and women who undoubtedly felt like pawns themselves.

Instead I want to talk about what happened afterward in the blogosphere. This is where I saw the thread of new beginnings, in places where people understood for the first time just how far evangelicalism has strayed from the Gospel and how deeply immersed in the culture war it has become. Bloggers all over the place, in tones that were (mostly) not aggressive, not antagonistic, but rather heart sore and sad, came to realize that evangelicals no longer represent what they believe to be the Christian faith.

The reactions to World Vision’s announcement and reversal were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Rachel Held Evans decided that “rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees.” Micah J. Murray voiced the truth that “a lot of us [are] walking away pretty sure that we’re not evangelicals anymore but not sure what that even means.” Zack Hunt wrote about how the Church is in need of new wineskins: “As the past few years have hinted at, and last week made crystal clear, evangelicalism is an old wineskin that is long past its expiration date.”*

Then, Ben Moberg wrote this piece, which had echoes of a farewell and a new beginning all rolled up in the same blog post. His tone was somber, yet hopeful. Full of expectation for a return to the heart of the Gospel that sheds the legalism and hard lines in the sand that have come to characterize the evangelical world.

So this is the silver lining. This is the redemption that is born out of the awful mess that was the World Vision scandal. It is sad, of course, that it took something like this to spur people of faith everywhere to search out a new way forward, but it is also exciting, in a way. We are on the brink of something new, a reimagining of how we live our lives as disciples of Jesus and followers of the Word, a step away from the constriction of the pharisees and a step toward the Kingdom. For I know that my God is a God of redemption, one who breathes life into the darkest of places, even when those places are of our own making.

* The wineskin is a reference to Matthew 9:16-17.

 

The Scandal of God’s Grace

A blog post I read awhile ago on Addie Zierman’s blog rings through my ears every now and again. In her beautiful and poetic writing style, Addie captures the scandalous nature of God’s grace. She writes:

“This is the only place in your whole world where there are no expectations; this is the one person you cannot disappoint. There is no test. God is not waiting for you to do some certain thing or to say some particular combination of words to give you Good Things.”

God’s grace is limitless—there is no end to His love for us and no time in our lives when we are required to earn it. We are infinitely loved exactly as we are—with all of our baggage, bad attitudes, shameful pasts, and every other part of us that the world might deem to be unworthy of love or forgiveness.

We are accepted by God, we are loved by God, and there is nothing we can do in this life to make that untrue.

More often than not,  I struggle deeply with this idea. My human nature rebels against the grace of God because it seems too marvelous, too beautiful to be true. And what’s more, I think most people struggle with this, because whenever I talk about that with someone—whenever I say, “God accepts us, God loves, we are cherished by God more deeply than we could possibly imagine exactly as we are” the response I hear is always one of conditions: “Yes but God doesn’t want us to stay that way. True repentance means turning away from sin.” Or they say, “Yes but, remember, God is holy, and he cannot tolerate sin.”

I listened to a sermon once that talked about that incredible story of the pharisees and the adulterous woman in John 8. If you don’t know the story, it’s basically about how the pharisees are trying to trap Jesus into drawing a line in the sand when it comes to sin and stoning a woman for committing adultery. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and tells them that only a sinless person has the right to condemn her. He defends her in such a beautiful way,  a way that would have been unprecedented at the time for a man to treat a woman. It’s a lovely story.

And here’s the part that is relevant to grace and our inability to come to terms with the enormity of it. During the sermon, the pastor talked about how that story was very nearly omitted from John’s gospel. It was too scandalous, too shocking, too incredible to imagine that the Messiah would respond in the way that he did, by offering her grace, by saing “Neither do I condemn you”. Early Christians thought it might communicate the wrong kind of message to put in print that Jesus would do such a thing.

They couldn’t conceive of a grace so exhaustive that it would rise to the defense of not only a woman, but an adulteress.

Yet that is exactly the depth and breadth of God’s grace. It knows no limits, and there is no corner of humanity that is so dark, so lost, so cruel or filled with hate, that God’s light can’t break in and wash it all away. It has no conditions, and no requirements to live up to in order to receive it. All that is required of us is to let it happen, to simply let God’s grace wash over us.

Noah: A Film Review

**Please be aware: this review contains significant spoilers for the film Noah**

Since its release, Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has garnered extremely polarized responses. Some praised it as a masterpiece, and others deplored its alterations of the original story of Noah and the ark, which can be found in Genesis 6-9. I had been anticipating the film for some time, and my interest was piqued despite all the harsh Facebook statuses about how much it butchered God’s Word. Some of the more liberal blogs I follow were posting quite positive reviews, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance for myself.

I’m very glad that I did! I found so much to love about this movie, even if it did include a few plot lines that I felt were unnecessarily over-the-top. What I enjoyed most about Noah was how Aronofsky brought the characters to life and reminded us in very sobering fashion that the story of Noah is not happy one; it is a story about genocide.

I’ve read the Bible story many times throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I watched the film that it occurred to me how tragic it must have been for Noah and his family to live through the destruction of all human and animal life on earth except themselves and the animals on the ark. What a burden!

Aronofsky fleshes out every character in the film, infusing the story with humanity. Most especially, I found his treatment of the character Ham to be absolutely fascinating. Of all the characters in the film, it is with Ham that I sympathize most. He creates tension in the story because he is Noah’s foil; Noah seeks to preserve nature, but Ham has no qualms about uprooting flowers. Noah is merciless (or faithful, depending on what way you look at it) in his insistence that all humanity is condemned according to God’s will, but Ham has compassion for a girl and tries to take her on the ark as his wife. Noah advocates non-violence, and uses his weapons only to protect his family, but Ham is fascinated when the film’s antagonist, Tubal-Cain, offers him a battle-ax. Ham is a complicated character, clearly lured by the evil in his heart yet desperate to rescue the victims in his life at all costs—even the cost of his father’s life.

I also found the character of Noah to be compellingly faithful to the biblical account. His loyalty to God—whom he and others call the Creator—is unwavering. Though the viewer senses his anguish, he remains stubbornly obedient to God’s will. Throughout the film, Noah is faced with decisions in which his own moral conscience is pitted against what he believes is God’s divine will.  His resolute determination to carry out that will, despite the pleadings of his wife and sons to the contrary, reveal a character consistent with the man described in the Bible.

Noah is committed to righteousness and obedience, and he is willing to follow God’s commands even when they border on the heinousness. In one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Ham attempts to rescue a girl from Tubal-Cain’s camp and bring her on the ark. As they are escaping, however, her foot gets caught in an animal trap, and when Noah arrives to fetch his son, he drags Ham away and leaves the girl to suffer a grisly death at the hands of an approaching mob of men. And later, aboard the ark, Noah is faced with an even more impossible choice in his commitment to carry out the task he believes God gave him.

There are, of course, several parts of the film that have caused contention among Christians. However, I had no qualms with the liberties Aronofsky took with the source material for two reasons. First, poetic license is inevitable. Not only is the biblical story of Noah quite brief, I found through reading various articles that no major detractions from the Bible story were spun purely out of the director’s imagination. Other, non-canonical ancient manuscripts such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilee were also used as source material for the film, and it is from these manuscripts that characters such as the fallen, rock-encrusted angels are derived. For an analysis of how these manuscripts were used in the film, check out this article.

Other viewers were accepting of the film’s deviation from the biblical account, but took issue with Noah because of the way God was depicted. Instead of a loving Father who is grieved at humanity’s wickedness and in close relationship with his servant Noah, God is depicted as cold and distant, relentless in his judgment of humanity.

I disagree with this analysis, and that is the second reason I found the film to be a fair and faithful representation of the biblical account and the nature of God.  In the climax of the film, when Noah is faced with the most difficult decision of his life in which he must choose mercy or judgment, he chooses mercy, and listens to the compassion in his own heart rather than what he believes is the divine, wrathful edict of his Creator. And Ila, Shem’s wife and the recipient of this mercy, suggests that God chose to save Noah because he knew his heart, and he knew that in the end when faced with the choice between judgment and mercy, Noah would choose mercy; Noah would choose love.

In conclusion, I found the film to be a remarkably profound adaptation that explores the deepest questions offered by its source material: Is humanity worth saving? Is God’s character one of love or judgment?  Are human beings inherently evil or good? At the end of the day, which characterization will win out? Noah asks all these questions and more in a manner that is bold yet tactful, urging the viewer to think beyond the basic frame of the story. And an adaptation that accomplishes that is, in my opinion, a faithful one.

CTW Conference Part 4: Millennials and the Church

In this post, I will be writing about the final three sessions of the conference, since they all revolve around one question: why are millennials leaving the church? Of course, as someone right in the middle of the generation labeled millennials (who are generally considered to be people born between the years 1984 and 2002), this conversation is very pertinent to me, and I found the discussions concerning this topic to be very enlightening.

The morning breakout, titled “Vanishing Acts”, discussed several key “felt needs” that the church should be addressing if it is serious about creating a space that is inviting for millennials. The breakout was led by Nick Cunningham, the young adult pastor at Ginghamsburg Church.

The first felt need Nick talked about is the need for relationships. He cited a study which revealed that 60% of millennials who have chosen to stay in the church do so because of the friendships they have developed. Often, however, churches can make this environment difficult by structuring small group gatherings as classroom lectures.  When a group leader spends a whole hour teaching a lesson, it creates an environment that prioritizes lessons over relationships and gives people the perfect opportunity to leverage curriculums as a shield against forming genuine relationships.

Another felt need we discussed during the break-out was the need for authenticity. Nick used a pop-culture example to illustrate this need: Anne Hathaway, whose image has traditionally been associated with the smiling, sweet girl next door (think The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted, and Bride Wars) didn’t gain the respect of the public until her role in Les Miserables. In this film, her life is tragic, and her distressed emotional state is revealed for all the world to see. In short, Anne plays a role that is authentic.

Millennials today are looking for an oasis from the hype—a place where all the gaudiness and unrealistic representations of life are blessedly absent, and we can be real about our dreams, fears, doubts, and hopes about our faith and our future. We are looking for a place where the truest, hardest questions in our hearts will be handled gently yet seriously, instead of being glossed over with an oversimplified answer that doesn’t really hold water when we step outside the doors of a church and into real life.

Admittedly, vulnerability is hard; revealing our authentic feelings is hard. But it is also the truest way to form meaningful relationships, and in that way, the first and second felt needs we discussed are inextricably interrelated.

Nick concluded his break-out with an appeal to millennials. Of course, the work to reconcile the lost generation of young people back to the church cannot be a one-way street. He encouraged our generation to challenge ourselves in three ways: first, to stop being cyncial, and look for the hope that is the kingdom of God instead of dwelling in wariness at every turn. He also encouraged us to not be reluctant to make decisions and step outside our own bubble of comfort. And lastly, he acknowledged that it is often so easy for us to become ensnared by shallow, trendy approaches to church. He encouraged us to continue seeking that authentic community which is so important in the body of Christ.

After the morning sessions, we broke for lunch then continued on to the final two sessions of the conference—the two I had been anticipating greatly during the weeks preceding the conference. Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and author of two books, delivered the afternoon keynote entitled “Keeping the Church Weird.”

She started with the sobering statistics: today, 59% of millennials have stopped attending church. Rachel contended that the reasons for this are varied and complex, but at the heart of it is grace. We wrap the gospel in so many layers of theology—so many principles for “right belief”—that we make Christianity more exclusive instead of more inclusive.

Rachel also talked about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which you can read in Acts 8:26-40. Traditionally, pastors use this story as a framework for evangelism: this is how you reach people who are seeking after Jesus. However, to connect this story back to Nick’s point about authenticity, reading the story that way overlooks the absolute scandal of what Philip was doing.

As a eunuch, the Ethiopian was ceremonially unclean. He was a outcast of the religious right, deemed unworthy to participate in temple worship, let alone be baptized. Yet when Philip explains who Jesus is to him, he does not hesitate to ask Philip to baptize him. Rachel points out that alarms must have been going off in Philip’s head: “But this guy isn’t clean; how could he understand the gospel?” “This man is the last sort of person I would expect to baptize!”

Yet when the rubber met the road, and Philip was poised with a simple question, he did not hesitate. He led the eunuch down into the water, and he baptized him.

It is a beautiful example of the truth that the Gospel isn’t offensive because of who it keeps out; it is offensive because of who it lets in. If we get out of the way, and let God do his work in the world, he might use methods we don’t approve of, and that thought can be terrifying for those who have the methods—who have the theologies—all hammered out.

Church, Rachel reminded us, needs to be a place where the outcasts, the eunuchs of today, feel just as welcomed as the middle-class “acceptable” people. It needs to be a place where everyone can pass within the doors of church, breathe a sigh of relief, and lay out the real and true baggage of our lives before our fellow believers.

In short, church needs to start looking like an AA meeting.

After Rachel’s enlightening discussion, there was time for Q&A, and of course one of the first questions asked was what church leaders can do practically to demonstrate that they are serious about implementing this sort of change. At this point, Rachel bravely shifted the conversation from the eunuchs of the ancient world to the eunuchs of today: the LGBTQ community.

She talked about the many changes we can make in order to demonstrate genuine compassion for them: first, use their language. Learn what the acronym means, and why they use it (and as a side note, don’t ever use homosexual as a noun!). Create room for their voices to be heard, and listen to their stories in the same way that Philip listened to the eunuch as he explained his fascination with Isaiah 53.

Rachel concluded her talk with reminding us that solidarity is not the same thing as conformity, and people rarely fit into the categories that we try to assign them. She offered the idea that the best way to establish that solidarity despite the differences is confession. Confession drops our guards and puts us on level playing ground as equally broken human beings. When we are honest about what hurts, honest about our own shortcomings, we pave the way for others to do the same.

The Q&A with Rachel continued into the afternoon break-out session, where we returned to the broader discussion of evangelicalism in the United States. Rachel discussed how it is troubling that those who are most committed to the evangelical label are also the ones who define it most narrowly.

This is very problematic in the Church today, because our narrow theology has led to what Rachel called the “cost of false fundamentals”: people are leaving the church because the feel they must make choices that aren’t central to the Gospel (i.e., believe in creationism or evolution, be gay or be Christian). And when their reading of scripture and their experiences of the world lead them to embrace a view contrary to the conservative one, that rejection is equated with rejecting the Gospel.

Yet, for every rule we create, for every stipulation we place upon what constitutes a faithful follower of Jesus, there will always be someone for whom the rule doesn’t fit. There will always be someone who is walking unashamed in the grace of the Father, yet who seems to our limited vision to be living a life contrary to our idea of Christianity. Embracing these people and accepting that sometimes God accepts those we deem unacceptable is the epitome of grace.

This, Rachel suggested, is the direction the church must turn. We must embrace those who seem unlovable. We must be willing to step out and speak an honest word, even when we fear upsetting other or losing their respect. Sometimes, our capacity to love despite our differences is more resilient than we expect.

Thank you for listening along with me as I write out my experiences at the Change the World Missional Conference at Ginghamsburg Church. I learned lessons there that I will never forget, and I hope you learned a little something as well by reading about the teachings of these incredible men and women of God.

 

CTW Conference Part 3: The Fall of the White Evangelical?

If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my commentary on the conference.

The first day of the conference exceeded my expectations far beyond what I could have imagined, and I could hardly sleep that night in anticipation of another full day of sessions with my fellow believers in Christ.

Friday morning kicked off to a great start with professor Diana Butler Bass, who has written eight books and specializes in teaching about American religion and culture. Her keynote, titled “New Spiritual Awakening or Big Religious Bust?”, was about the culture shifts in these present days and how white evangelicals, who have enjoyed influence in both the cultural and religious spheres for as long as our country has been a nation, are beginning to lose that hold on our culture.

Diana began her talk with a metaphor (in fact, she used a lot of very interesting and practical metaphors!). She talked about the differences between weather and climate: weather is temporal. You can go outside and observe it, and anyone can tell you what the weather is like at any particular moment. But it also changes quickly, and an ordinary layperson can’t predict it.

Climate, however, is quite different. It is steady, and it is a macro-cosmic description of weather patterns over a long period of time, all of which are predictable and testable via statistics. Sometimes, though quite rarely, the climate of a particular area can change.

Right now, Diana contended, we are in the midst of a climate change. The Church is transforming from one way of believing to another, and we are right in the midst of it.

One of the ways she illustrated this climate change is by describing the voting demographics for the 2012 presidential election. The graph she showed us broke voters down into eight religious categories: unaffiliated, white evangelical, white mainline, white Catholic, Hispanic catholic, black protestant, other Christian, and non-Christian religious.

She went into detail explaining the logistics of this, but basically Diana’s main point in showing us the graph was to point out that white evangelicals had comprised 40% of Mitt Romney’s vote, and only 10% of Obama’s. Yet for Obama, a whopping 25% of his voters identified as unaffiliated.

It was the first time in history that a candidate has won the white evangelical vote and lost the election.

White evangelicals are losing the political influence they have enjoyed since the founding of the United States, and they are being superseded by voters who may or many not be followers of Jesus, but for whatever reason have chosen to identify as unaffiliated. According to Diana, this is a huge shift.

She showed us a few other statistics about how people choose to label themselves, and revealed that more Americans today than ever before choose not to affiliate with institutionalized religion, preferring the term “spiritual” as often as they identify as “religious” (almost half of all Americans identify as both). She concluded that this is not something that we should deem a threat to protect ourselves from, but rather as an indication that the presence of God is here, and it is “moving with the beat of the world in a new way.”

CTW Conference Part 2: A Mustard Seed Church

If this is the first entry you’ve read about the conference, it might be helpful to go back and start with Part 1.

After a short break for lunch, we all gathered in the worship center for our next keynote speaker: Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church. His discussion expanded upon the points made in the morning’s breakout about building a church that works from a bottom-up system, rather than an hierarchy that puts all the pressure on a pastor. He had a lot of informative things to say, but more than anything else, it was Mike’s stories that kept me entranced.

He told the story of his own church, which had been founded in the mid 1800s but had never been very large. When he was appointed the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, it had only 70 people attending. When he arrived, the changes he implemented were so drastic that within a year half his congregation left, and the church was dying.

Mike’s heart for serving the Lord was so apparent throughout his talk—he wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, and look critically at how church is done, and how it ought to be done, which is why so many people left in his early years. Over time, however, as his heart for seeing Ginghamsburg Church be transformed into a mission-minded church began to manifest, his church grew, and grew, and grew.

Now, over 3,000 men, women, and children attend Ginghamsburg Church.

Mike talked about how the testimony of his church is a story that parallels Jesus’ parable when he said the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—it is the tiniest and most insignificant of seeds, but when it is planted, watered, and cared for it matures into an enormous, towering tree. And this is just what happened with Ginghamsburg Church.

Mike told other stories of churches that saw similar growth, and I think it is a sure indication that people are drawn to the Light, drawn to a place where God is reigning, and He is the one church leaders seek to please, not each other. He told a story about a church in Philadelphia that experienced similar growth. It was led by a pastor with no college degree—certainly no seminary degree—who sensed God’s vocation and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit answered God’s calling. Mike called it a “grassroots movement”, where there is no stipulation for shepherding a flock of believers except the anointing of God. It was such a wonderful testimony.

After Mike’s keynote, we split up again for break-out sessions. I chose to attend a session called “Mission that Helps, Not Hurts,” which is about missions trips–both short-term and long-term—and what we can do to transform our outlook on the purpose they serve. The breakout leader was Elizabeth Heft, who is in charge of missions at Ginghamsburg Church.

I think that, of all the speakers I listened to at this conference, Elizabeth’s was the most challenging and convicting to me. She critiqued the way we ordinarily do missions in a way that was tactful yet bold, and I learned a lot from her. Most of the time, when churches send out short-term missions teams, they send them with a problem to fix. I thought of so many examples from my own experiences—going to Mexico and building a home for an old woman, going to Toronto and helping in a soup kitchen, things like that.

While aid of this sort does fix a short-term problem, it is not sustainable. Building a home fixes one woman’s problem and gives her shelter, which is great, but it doesn’t help her improve her own quality of life; we improved it for her.

To illustrate this problem, Elizabeth used the illustration of a tree as metaphor for a particular culture. Each part of a tree represents a different aspect of the culture: the roots represent a people’s beliefs. The trunk signifies what they value, and the branches represent their behavior. The fruit–the most apparent part of a tree–represents the results.

So building a home in Mexico is a result of the missions trip. But Elizabeth likened this sort of result to looking at a dead tree in need of care, pulling down all the rotten fruits, and replacing them with artificial fruit. The result looks good, but the tree’s branches, trunk, and roots are still withered. Instead, we need to find ways to water the roots of a tree and generate sustainable life that will filter out into its trunk, branches, and eventually produce real fruits.

Elizabeth also talked about changing the language we use. Instead of missionaries going to help the poor, which implies a tilted sense of superiority and inferiority, she suggested referring to those who go to the mission field as “goers” and those who receive them as “welcomers”. When you think of it this way, you see that each group has a role to play in learning from the other, and supporting the other. It’s such a great way to think of missions.

After this talk, we walked through a diagram of how to consider ways in which we can make missions sustainable. Elizabeth drew a T chart on a whiteboard, with two columns labeled “benefits” and “costs”. She offered us a problem that a community might have—like malnourishment—and what solutions we might have to alleviate hunger in a particular area. Then, we wrote down the costs and benefits to each group—the “welcomers” and the “goers”. Working through this exercise helped us see ways in which the solutions we offered might be beneficial on a short-term basis, but failed to be sustainable.

In all, this discussion was probably the most enlightening for me. After it was over, I started talking to a couple I had done an exercise with. The man started telling me about a soup kitchen he and his wife ran in their home town, and how over the course of several years it had grown to about 3,000 people coming to be fed on a weekly basis. I was in awe, and I started to think about what a fantastic ministry this was.

Then, I realized it wasn’t. The man went on to talk about how frustrating it was for him that now multiple generations of families were dependent on this soup kitchen for their daily bread, and how the ministry had turned into an example of “artificial fruit” that is not sustainable and would have no long-term benefit to empowering these people to earn their own food. I had never considered things in this way before this break-out, and it was definitely an eye-opener.

Wow, that was another long one! I hope you were willing to stick it through to the end. I just learned so much, and even everything I’ve shared here is but the tip of the ice berg. Keep an eye out; I’ll continue with Parts 3 and 4 soon.

CTW Conference Part 1: How to Read the Bible

When I slid into my car yesterday for the drive to Tipp City, OH, I was feeling equal parts nervous and excited. I’d been anticipating this trip for two months now, ever since I ordered the ticket online. And now the moment was upon me: I was on the road, traveling towards Ginghamsburg Church and the two-day Change the World Missional Conference.

I didn’t really know what to expect; after all, their website didn’t give a lot of information about the conference, except to say that it is designed to equip church leaders with the tools they need to develop their churches and transform their fellow Christians into leaders. I’m not a Christian leader, and I’m certainly not a pastor, nor do I feel I am called to either of those vocations. Would I learn anything of value at this conference?

Oh my goodness, the answer is yes!!

I can’t even begin to describe the incredible feeling of being surrounded by Christians—and not just Christians, but Christian leaders—who are interested in having the same conversations I’ve been wrestling with over this past year and a half. This experience was liberating and encouraging to me on so many levels, and I’m so excited to share why.

The conference kicked off to a fantastic start with keynote speaker Adam Hamilton, who pastors an incredibly large UMC church in Leawood, KS, and has authored 14 books. He spoke the words I’ve been dying to hear from a pulpit for so, so long: the Bible is not infallible. It is written by men and women who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that is a very different matter than claiming that God himself wrote it.

Hamilton talked about how it is okay to wrestle with the Bible, and it is okay to ask difficult questions. All of scripture, he says, must be viewed through the lens of the Gospel, through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the very living Word of God.

I’m telling you, I was about ready to leap out of my seat with excitement.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed Hamilton’s speech, I know many Christians, especially conservatives, would have found it to be inaccurate, and even heretical. After all, he talked about the story of creation and Noah and the flood as archetypal myths meant to communicate the nature of God to us, but not necessarily to recount historical events. So while I found this talk to be fascinating and discerning, I understand that some would take issue with it.

After the keynote, we broke up into smaller sessions. I attended a session entitled “Fanning the Fire”, which was led by one of Ginghamsburg Church’s small groups coordinators, Tony Miltenberger. This discussion was utterly fantastic, and I found myself wishing I was a church leader so I could implement what he taught (actually, scratch that. Something tells me it would be a thankless task!).

Basically, Tony talked about how most churches today are generally structured as an institution or a corporation, in which the pastor as at the top of a chain of command, and he delegates a portion of his responsibilities to committees, who then coordinate church activities. This structure, which he called the traditional model, often leaves pastors utterly burnt out from the weight of responsibility, and committees in charge of chaining concregation’s ideas to a strict and tight set of stipulations.

Under the guidance of Tony, Ginghamsburg Church decided to abolish this model in favor of a new way of structuring church programs. He labeled this method the missional model. Instead of an hierarchy, Tony suggested involving church attendees in a way that makes them accountable for doing Kingdom work and investing in each other’s growth as disciples of Jesus. He suggested training individuals as “life group” leaders, which would range in size from 10-15.  These groups would collaborate to accomplish a collective vision, whether that be a Bible study, serving in the community, or just fellowshipping together in an informal manner.

There would be no red tape to walk through to get these groups rolling, except the approval of one of the coordinators. Instead, the leaders of these groups would need to meet three requirements before being allowed to start a life group: become members of the church, participate in a 12-week training course, and commit to praying individually for each of their life group members daily. After that, the sky is the limit, and any creative vision could become a reality for that particular group.

This model takes the pressure off the pastor, and fosters a committed, involved church body that has accountability among themselves and is united in a particular goal. Instead of the pastor and committees being responsible for most of the church’s mission work, the congregation themselves are carrying out this very important work, which accomplishes volumes in transforming the Church into a body that is thriving and growing together instead of passively sitting in pews each Sunday morning—essentially, congregations become producers instead of consumers.

Wow. I can’t believe I’ve written so much already, and so far I’ve only written about the morning sessions of the two-day conference! Stay tuned for a separate blog post about Thursday afternoon. Later, I’ll also write about Friday’s sessions, after which I’ll probably write a summary post collecting all my thoughts in cohesive whole. I suppose this is is a mini-series of sorts, and I expect to write a total of five posts about this conference. There is just so much to share.

So stay tuned for more!

 

God’s Not Dead: A Film Review

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**Please be aware: this blog post contains spoilers for the film God’s Not Dead**

This is my third attempt at expressing my thoughts on this film. The first time, I took a stab at satiric writing and fake-gushed about how fantastic it was. The second time, I thought I’d do a character-by-character analysis delving into all the ways this film reinforced terrible stereotypes that have saturated the way evangelicals view those who believe differently than we do. But I realized as I wrote these things that while my issues with the film are quite legitimate, they don’t get to the heart of why this film is so problematic.

I believe the greatest travesty that God’s Not Dead committed was to reinforce the idea that Christians are courageous but persecuted in a culture that treats them with disdain and outright disrespect. The film played out on screen the same sentiments that many Christians want to believe about ourselves: we’re living in a culture that mocks and belittles our faith. We are modern-day martyrs, and we must fight to the end to defend the truth of God, and be kind but bold to those around us who are caught up in the bitterness of their own godlessness.

The main plot of the film’s storyline initiates when Professor Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor, demands that his students sign a statement that “God is dead” or receive a 0 for 30% of their grade in the class. We see the film’s agenda right from the start. Every student in the class has no issues with complying; they are all either atheists themselves, or willing to compromise their religious beliefs for the sake of a passing grade.

Every student except for one, of course. Josh Wheaton, a freshman who has been a Christian most of his life, refuses. In response, the professor challenges him to present the reasons for God’s existence in three 20-minute lectures, after which the professor will provide a rebuttal, and the class will determine the winner. Throughout this exchange—and truly, throughout the whole movie—Radisson is remarkably antagonistic, rude, and arrogant towards Wheaton. He is the absolute picture of the stereotype of atheists as hostile and rude, while Josh is presented as the kind young Christian victimized by his oppressive professor.

Throughout the film, other storylines emerge which are completely removed from the central conflict between Josh and Professor Radisson. Each of these reinforces the film’s agenda of presenting Christians as persecuted martyrs in a way that is laughably conspicuous. For example, a teenage Muslim girl named Ayisha who works at Josh’s college is revealed to have secretly converted to the Christian faith, despite having a father who is very fundamentalist and requires her to wear  a hijab over her head and face in public. When he finds out, the man is outraged, and after kicking her, hitting her, and screaming at her, he drags her out of the house and excommunicates her from her family.

Now, I understand that situations like this happen, and that men and women born into the Muslim faith who convert to Christianity sometimes endure the rejection that Ayisha endured in the film. But this story’s inclusion in this movie felt problematic to me for many reasons. First, this sort of thing is not likely to happen in the United States. It is as though the filmmakers capitalized on the very real oppression that occurs abroad and dropped it into an American, privileged, middle-class context. Ayisha’s family seemed to be an ordinary American family, and in fact, the hijab is the only indication we have that she is Muslim. Her story just doesn’t fit well into this nation’s context of religious liberty.

Now, all of this is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to the plethora of issues I had with this film. Granted, I understand why so many Christians are gushing with praise for the film—it reinforces all the beliefs most of them already hold and does nothing to challenge the status quo or make viewers think more deeply about the questions it raises. Instead, God’s Not Dead resolves those questions in the neatest ending imaginable. The Christians to whom this film caters would leave the theater feeling gratified and inspired, while everyone else—myself included—felt utter frustration at its unrealistic treatment of persecution, its stereotyping, and its rejection of any sort of complexity or nuance.