Happy Birthday, Martin Niemöller

January 14, 2013

Today is the 121st anniversary of the birth of Martin Niemöller. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, and lived richly ambiguous life during the reign of Hitler. Initially, Niemöller was a supporter of the Nazis, and made many anti-Semitic remarks in the early days of The Nazis. His comments were of the kind that were made of fear.

Niemöller came to his senses, and began to preach and speak out against Hitler. The consequences were swift: Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1938-1945. He narrowly missed execution, and was liberated by the US Army after the Nazis abandoned the concentration camp.

After leaving Dachau, Niemöller admitted his guilt, and became a pacifist. The following quote is attributed to Niemöller, which has contributed to his renown and ill fame:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I’m mindful that Niemöller underwent the kind of conversion in prison that few of us will ever experience. If hindsight is indeed 20-20, he received an acuity coupled to his repentance that focused his being a recipient of grace and his share in humanity.

It’s an interesting season, in that you’re probably aware that Louie Giglio removed himself from the upcoming presidential inauguration, as the news made the rounds that he voiced his objections to the organizing efforts by various LGBQT groups to influence the government. It’s not his objections or the supposed objections of PIC to Giglio’s remarks I’m concerned with here.

It’s the responses of the evangelical leaders of various ministries and institutions that I’d draw your attention to. Google Andrew Marin, and you’ll find in his blog a list of names with links. The responses are the kind Niemöller made before he was imprisoned. Lots of fear expressed about what the world is coming to.

Parenthetically, I’m in favor people speaking up, and Giglio’s comments weren’t, as far I can discern, made out of fear: but commended practices of organization and policy to other Christians. Even if you disagree with him, the practice of making those comments needs to be endorsed by everyone.

The remarks of the evangelical leaders were from a different tone. It’s too bad, as these responses represent a bunker mentality, that somehow our evangelical identity has separated our humanity from the rest of the human race and that our experience with the human condition privileges us from the rest of the people on the planet.

It’s part of our evangelical heritage of late to presume we’re the stewards of culture and morality, and instead of perceiving circumstances as these as an opportunity for mission, fears get expressed as the prevailing motivation of at least one segment of the church.

It’s the later Niemöller that these leaders need to consider and emulate: as do all of us from the church.

Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

December 10, 2012

My internet connection was down over the weekend so this is a delayed post.

Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is the premier contemporary missiologist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Newbigin’s passionate reflection upon the Gospel and Christian mission remain unparalleled in our time. His writings have yet to be fathomed; his preaching, lectures, and publications are regularly read by pastors, missionaries, and routinely challenge theologians and missiologists. Newbigin served 40 years in missionary service in India, and in service to the worldwide church; his subtle influence upon Vatican II is only now becoming public. Upon retirement, Newbigin began serving as a pastor in London to an inner-city church. In honor of what would have been Newbigin’s 104th birthday, I post the following:

“When we speak of finding in Jesus the clue to the meaning of the whole human story, we are not speaking of a mere cognitive exercise. We’re speaking of that act of atonement wrought in Jesus through which we are brought into a loving obedience to the will of God as it is exercised through all human and cosmic history. It is not merely a matter of illumination, of new understanding; it is a matter of reconciliation, of rescue from alienation, of obedient response to the divine initiative of love. It is illumination and new understanding only because it is first a divine action of reconciliation through which we are brought to that state in which we can say and know that God works all things together for good to those who love him. It is only through this act of atonement that Jesus becomes for us a clue to history.” (Truth and Authority in Modernity, 1996:39-40.)

Response to Pew Report on Rising Number of “nones” with Religious Affiliation: really, just one (big) thought

October 12, 2012

Earlier this week, the Pew Report on Religion announced its perceived most important result: the number of religiously unaffiliated increased in the last 5 years from just over 15% to just under 20%. Perhaps the most valuable description here is that what was formerly an intuition for most people is now quantified. For those wanting to know more about the increasing movement in the unaffiliated, there was a sidebar that offered some interpretation.

To me, this sidebar was informative, and leaves us with an impression that there are powers at work that will keep rolling through North America, almost without stalling, inexorably, and lending to the notion that the extinguishing of religious affiliation is a foregone conclusion. That impression needs to be examined, although not for the sake of preserving religions per se. Of course, some people may not agree with the impression, and what follows will be superfluous. Such readers may want to stick around anyway.

The sidebar observes four different theories to explain the increase, and they are as follows:

  1. Political backlash, i.e., people reject the attempts of organized religions to influence social institutions like marriage or school curriculum, and are repelled by institutions like the 1970′s “Religious Right” and others that were media savvy for their day and remarkably well organized for influencing elections and sitting politicians.
  2. Delays in Marriage; here, the idea is proposed that those who wait for matrimony (into their 30′s?) are less likely to participate in religious services or commit to any social institution.
  3. Broad social disengagement; here, there is larger trend, made famous by Putnam’s text, “Bowling Alone”, in which, just not religious organizations, but many social institutions are experiencing declines throughout the generations in participation, resulting in lower social capital and a remarkable decrease in communal experience.
  4. Secularization. I must admit: I thought this theory was moribund, and perhaps the editors/writers of the sidebar felt they needed to include this. Yet, even their data- and they admit as much- give further evidence the theory is lifeless. In short, the theory argues that as the overall economic/financial health of the society improves, their religiosity decreases; if the economic health is poor, the religiosity of a nation increases. In the US, the trend continues unabated: the GDP improves, and the nation’s religiosity increases. Why the theory was included doesn’t have any support from the data.

So, my one thought all along has been, how do the people respond to such forces? It needs to be made clear. Survey data doesn’t give us such information. Again, the theories proposed above don’t offer much direct engagement with the surveys or specifically with the respondents. So…

I would make a few suggestions for your reading, and such fall under one big thought: people already have some sense of mission in their lives. They may not use, or even resist, the use of the term “mission.” But for those who are thriving, they have some sense of purpose to their lives. They may not have a religious, let alone Christian, sense to that mission, but they’ve got it. I will defer to another day for a discussion of what is going on for those “who do not thrive.” But, for now, I want to attend to those who are thriving.

For those are the people who are negotiating and determining what kinds of constraints and enablements they encounter when they consider religious affiliation. Religious affiliation doesn’t possess, in and of itself, some social hydraulic that pre-determines an outcome socially. Nor does it hold some kind of special power that induces a unique psychological state that human persons are compelled to act upon.

My guess is that most readers are following me: in other words, I’m trying to make sure we preserve the capacities and dignities that all human persons possess, while denying that the properties and powers of religious affiliation and its related institutional structures will/must produce a specific emotional and social status or produce a certain allegiance.

Let’s not abandon the very real capacities that all human persons have for inner deliberations, of the many kind that exist, and to determine, in response to religious affiliations, how to intersect in a fruitful manner that accounts for their personal sense of mission/purpose.

On the one hand, attaching ourselves to the different theories above concurrently hands off our latent powers to reflect upon the social and cultural context one finds one self in, and merges such without any real consideration of what it means to be human. On the other hand, by keeping a confident hold on such remarkable properties leaves room for learning, testing, a “changing of one’s mind,” and the possibilities that one’s personal projects can fallibly include religious affiliation: and still retain a sense of mission that coheres with that religious affiliation: and activate the powers that accompany a religious commitment.

A reply to David Fitch’s “Is ‘missional’ doomed?”

October 8, 2012

Thanks for keeping up (and returning to!) your blog. I deeply appreciate your initiatives and creativity. I have a few replies to you and your friend, Bob Havenor, and have set them within my blog, as I am sure that I have one or two people who do not read your blog but will as soon as they read your impassioned plea regarding the missional movement!!!

You asked right from the top two questions about the doom of the missional movement, and IMHO, it’s already been fulfilled. In so many ways beyond consumerism and overlay, the adjective is already an important corollary to Bishop Stephen Neill’s axiom: “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” The adjective has done as much to conceal as it has to reveal.

To be sure, for many readers of your books and blog, the adjective is redundant: how can we have or identify a church without a mission? Hence the appeal of the adjective to assist in the recovery of the church’s sense of calling into existence. Clearly, overlays at this point do not promote the kinds of transitions, demolition, and construction of “outward oriented Kingdom (Gospel) living.”

Bob’s concern (and yours, in degrees) regarding structure, e.g., the Sunday gathering or the evangelical corporate practices, is a good one, and I’d like to suggest there are other ways to consider structure than conclude it has power that stalls mission, or that culture is embedded with power that prevents mission from moving forward in the neighborhood.

Before I get there, though, I want to affirm in the strongest possible way those questions Bob raises near the end of his letter. While I don’t know what he means by “mandate,” the second half of his question impresses me as both novel and familiar. In this regard, the stepping into the “murky riverbank of a great unknown” is a great new metaphor for the adjective, and is well represented by the worldwide house church movement. Indeed, this is a crack in the conversation about the adjective that I want to insert a wedge into for how we in the missional movement discuss structure and culture.

I want to suggest that none of the structures (or culture) discussed by Bob and yourself have any power in and of themselves that determines in advance how the people who constitute the church will respond. Indeed, if that were the case, there is probably some rhetoric out there that could validate for the present why such structures already serve Christ’s mission through the church.

Instead, I want affirm, following Margaret Archer, that the people (the missioners) who constitute the church make choices regarding their own sense of mission to activate the powers that both structure and culture possess: I want to affirm the missioner’s humanity to make fallible choices that fulfill their own projects, while keeping intact what we- Bob, you, me, and others- understand to be frighteningly true: there are objective consequences to those choices that the missioner cannot pre-determine. But, the point here is that none of the powers come into play unless the missioners put them into play.

That is not say that the missioner can avoid the powers of structure or culture: others will perceive those powers as constraints or enablements, and relationships, structures, and culture will change or remain static. Even the missioner who refuses to activate the powers can have a later encounter. We observe this in people who decry changes in church structures even though they have steadfastly resisted or distanced themselves from such changes.

Let me add more: Let’s not run too quickly toward ascribing too much power to structure and culture in determining what the outcomes for mission will become. Let’s be sure to do some better on-the-ground discoveries of what people really perceive their sense of mission is, and compare such to the kinds of decisions they enact. Just a hunch: what people from our communities perceive about the power of structures and culture (constraints? enablements?) may be quite different from how they activate such powers…hopefully, I have given some width to the crack given by Bob.

Sorry to have run on. I’m going to conclude by suggesting that one of the trip-wires in Bob’s letter is the notion that we’ll find a successful structure, in contrast to all of the “failed structures” that Bob and the rest of us so keenly see and feel. Some of Roxburgh’s earliest writings recovered the missiological development of Victor Turner’s notion of liminality. “Development” is a key word here, for there isn’t, to Al’s credit, a one-to-one correspondence between the research setting of Turner and contemporary North America. Nevertheless, liminality is what immediately came to mind when Bob mentioned the “murky riverbed of the great unknown.” Traversing that murky riverbed really captures well the journey toward the missional church: a strong sense of liminality, whatever that structure may become by the grace of God. Liminality has a way of reasonably delaying ambitions for finding successful structures…

BTW, I see that you will come to Pasadena in January. My mentor is Ryan Bolger, and he has my contact info; perhaps we can enjoy Peet’s together? LMK…


New Discoveries on Personal Power: New Students Coming to Campus & Our Response

August 21, 2012

Last week and this week, thousands of first-year students are getting dropped off by their parents at their new dormitory, in anticipation of beginning classes that will lead to earning a bachelor’s degree. Having served as a campus minister, I’ve observed my fair share of tearful good-byes, most of which are shed by the parents, and the students feign sincere comfort for their parents during the farewell. Once the parents depart/drive away, the students turn a 180, and in some cases, sprint, toward their new companions in the dormitory: and the dream of and the question of what to do with their new and unrestrained power is now realized…

So, if you’re a parent, an auntie, an uncle, a grandparent, a youth worker, a pastor, or an affectionate lay leader who knows a young woman or young man heading off to the university: perhaps you’ll be surprised by what follows, but know that I won’t diminish the realities that exist on campus. So, let’s get to those first.

Everything you’ve heard about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll is true. Also true: professors with an axe to grind against Christianity and Christian students. (Although, it should be quickly added: those faculty have, at best, limited influence, and I will explain why below.) Unrestrained access to degrading pornography and divergent politics: also true. Late nights wasted and late nights wasted: both true. Discovery of new truths that contradict and confront “what we’ve been taught”: true. Also true: Cute, attractive, and intelligent women and men who are repugnant. Unattractive, intelligent women and men who are friendly. Women and men of different ethnicities, different cultures, different religions, and different political nations: who are unexpectedly cute, attractive, and intelligent: and civil, peaceable people. People who think differently from “us”: but turn out to be civil and friendly. People who think just like “us” but repel everyone with their lack of civility and abundance of antagonism. All true: and more. And I haven’t even cited reading lists, expected classes, and degree requirements.

And, I would suggest that rather than fear such social phenomena, you routinely peform at least three actions:

1) Pray for your student to increasingly know that they are loved by Jesus. Plenty of the above can be and is threatening to you and me: imagine what it must be like for your student, who perhaps has less life experience than we do, less experience in making mistakes and even less accumulated wisdom from such mistakes…that they would go about their days, in a decidedly cross-cultural context, without others they know and trust, knowing that they are loved by Jesus: that is perhaps the greatest experience they can have- one of the Holy Spirit- while becoming responsible students and adults simultaneously in the university.

2) Practice listening in an open-ended fashion to your student. This is where you may need some prayer and some need to call upon the strength and wisdom of the Holy Spirit!!! The first time you hear about some words/thoughts/activities you do not approve of that your student reports to you- often they are testing you, by the way- the immediate, unfiltered response can be one of criticism…no?

Instead, do your best to recapitulate what you heard to your student, and such includes trying to keep from yelling into the phone. (Trust me: I’ve been there.) In this complex movement from adolescence to adulthood, listening will empower your student in ways that often in the university they are not receiving. And such ways I am thinking of here regard the gracious love of Jesus.

3) I want you to reflect upon the resurrection with me for a moment. Is the resurrection only about God’s victory over death for you and me, that proves we are forgiven of our sins through the death of God’s Son? Or is it the unique event in history, of which there is no other parallel except the creation of the world, and further confirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ? God addresses us in such a unique event so as to welcome our participation into his reign, and participate in a new life- yes, with our sins forgiven- that contributes to God’s mission throughout creation: a new creation. And this is where your student comes in.

There’s nothing special per se about the university. However, it is a unique social context in which students begin making decisions with real, unrestrained power. To be sure, they likely depend upon Mom and Dad (and others); but that experience of dependency becomes inverted and diminished. It’s not lost on me that many college graduates do move back home: but the experience of making one’s own decisions, to pursue what Margaret Archer calls “personal projects of ultimate concern”, and enacting such decisions into some kind of mission will continue to happen in some continuity with the college experience. So, we need to be aware of this fresh, inexperienced use of power. And, be wise about when you jump in with advice about how to use such power: it’s not just the university that is new, but all of creation.

Which brings me to the caricatures of “flaming, Marxist professors who eat Christian freshmen for snacks in their lectures.” As is true of so many people, students will decide how much power from the above faculty member will constrain and enable them. It’s not about the power of the faculty member, draping his/her will over the student, even if they ultimately report course grades to the registrar. It’s really about the student deciding to what degree their power will activate the power of the faculty member. Ditto sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and all of the other items I listed above.

Plenty of people will argue against that perspective: but, there’s too much experience and reporting by college freshmen building up for that perspective: that in the midst of seeking fulfillment of their personal projects of ultimate concern, students will make choices about how to appropriate the powers of others and social structures (like coursework) as constraints and enablements. This also includes decisions regarding dating, friendships, selection of a major for a degree, voluntary student organizations, and more.

And what we can pray for is that our students will increasingly know they are loved, listened to, and begin the life-long exploration of participating within the new creation that has Jesus as Lord. Such an exploration will be performed imperfectly and fallibly; such an exploration will include decisions made faithfully and with the endowed power that God grants to all of his creatures made in his image. And, for so many of the freshmen students arriving this week on campuses throughout the US, this exploration begins in earnest with the fresh discovery of new and unrestrained power. Pray that they will follow Jesus as they use such power in coordination with his mission throughout the new creation: the same Jesus…

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil. 2:6-11

Ethnic Diversity: Reality for Growth or Choice of Zip Code?

August 17, 2012

I had an interesting meeting with a vendor regarding service for the home we just moved into. This vendor, an Anglo, mentioned that his family raised him in a community adjacent to the one we just moved from. He remained in that community through marriage and child-raising, and once he and his wife became an empty-nest, they moved several miles away, because of “the changing demographic, with so many Orientals moving into [the community].” He said this with a straight face, no sense of malice, not seeking some kind of social solidarity with me: even though he had just been introduced to my wife not 5 minutes earlier.

I must admit to you that I felt very, very sad for this man. In the past, I might have felt some slight or anger. But, in his case, as far as I can discern from his story, assuming the complexity of all life narratives, part of his decision to relocate was motivated by increasing ethnic diversity, i.e., people were moving into his neighborhood who were different from him and his family. And, this vignette evoked sadness for me.

Now, in part, this sadness is also related to the neighborhood we’ve moved into! We are the Asians of the block! As yet, I’ve not seen any African-Americans living on our street, but it’s a long one, and we’ve not been here a month. We have a few Spanish-speaking people, but I’m not sure what their cultural heritage is. So, that present reality may be part of my sadness in response to the vendor’s story.

It’s a big deal for the Christian community to take stock of its ethnic identity. That Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week is a shameful blight that the NA church can faithfully arrest and reverse. That we rarely or fail to vigorously reflect theologically about ethnicity as it relates to our mission in the communities where we live, serve, work, and worship is not merely a blind spot, but a gaping black hole about which our good intentions and “we’ll-get-to-it-later” slogans are vacuumed in while the diverse people around us wonder “what’s in it for me” as we tacitly describe ourselves as Christians.

When we shopped for a home, I recall looking around in every neighborhood, wondering who lives here? I mentioned this to my wife, and she always humored me by listening. For now, as we still get our boxes unpacked and set up, it’s not an issue. Of the neighbors we’ve met, they are the kindest and friendliest people one could ask for to be living adjacent to you: they are the real deal. But, it’s not lost on me: we’re the ethnic minorities of the street, as far as I can tell.

One of my favorite readings in the Gospel of Mark regards the invitation of Jesus to his followers in 4:35-41: “Let’s go over to the other side.” He just concluded some remarkable discourse on the Reign of God, all of which held the attention of the presumably Jewish crowd: and he invites them to head over to…the Gentile side of lake. In other words, as one of my earliest mentors paraphrased Jesus, “Let’s see if this stuff on the Kingdom makes any sense among people unlike ourselves.”
Here, Jesus welcomes his followers into an ambiguous, uncertain, short-term mission, while embedding his teaching, authority, and person within the missio Dei, and joining the two for testing and demonstrating the possibilities for God to reconcile Jew and Gentile in his reign.

Next week, my friends and colleagues from The Fellowship of Presbyterians will gather in Colorado Springs and Atlanta. I observed with some encouragement and some amusement that the pre-conference gathering will be about mission and…missions. Yet, the bulk of the ethos and philosophy of the FoP continues to be about being “missional.” Let me both cheer and chastise this posture.

Yes: the recovery of mission, even the adjective “missional”, is to be welcomed and encouraged: such a retrieval suggests not success, but an approaching day of fruitfulness. No: there cannot be any fruitful horizon for the FoP that fails to theologically account for biblical data that so explicitly directs the people of God into mission among those who are ethnically diverse and different from themselves. The “Focus on Church Planting” element of the August Gathering suggests an important corrective and development in the need for theological reflection on ethnic diversity; it’s a real bonus that it is embedded within the conversation on planting new churches.

Some of the sharpest minds and hearts among Presbyterians are within the FoP. Indeed, in private conversations, some of these people have admitted to me their desire for ethnic diversity within their own congregation. Often, they don’t know how to begin the journey of developing an ethnically-diverse congregation. But, the starting line is right in front of them daily: and I would want to reassure them that they may not get any real guidance straight away: there is no error-free instruction on beginning.

Given the history of NA and its churches, surely some of the FoP elders, both ruling and teaching, can provide leadership that fallibly and imperfectly relies upon the Word and Spirit to give witness to the Gospel among people unlike themselves: even within their own zip code.

Practices of Reading for Leading

August 15, 2012

A colleague tweeted this blog connecting leadership with reading, and, to be honest, I was overjoyed to read it. It’s worth taking the time to review what Coleman has to say here.

I’ve long advocated reading to my colleagues. Coleman does a good job of recapitulating much of what I’ve endorsed and encouraged my friends and colleagues to take on board when it comes to reading.

The challenge that repeatedly arises is communicating to my friends and colleagues “how to read a book.” Far too many of my younger colleagues have- let me be blunt- a misguided and an unrealistic expectation: If you pick up a book, you have to read every page from cover-to-cover.

I’m not sure where that presumption comes from. Leaving that aside, I’m a big fan of Mortimer Adler, Bobby Clinton, and Chuck Van Engen when it comes to reading. The last two, Fuller faculty, draw heavily upon Adler, but have modified his approach to address the realities of being involved in ministry, academic research, and sometimes both. Contact me if you want further details.

I mention the trio above for this reason: one of the first matters that all three are in agreement on is this: very few books are worthy of your sustained attention from cover-to-cover. I believe it was either Adler or Van Engen (maybe both?) who proposed that perhaps in anyone’s lifetime, there are probably 4 or 5 books that are worth reading all the way through. Most likely, you will read them several times from cover-to-cover.

The other matter that all three are in agreement on is this: You only need 10 to 20 minutes to inspect a book to decide if it is worth reading further. And all of the PhD students reading right now said, “Amen.” But, you don’t have to be in graduate school, the university, or even the church to recognize the wisdom of this advice. While each of the three nuances how you make the decision to read further, they are unanimous: you need a strategy to determine if a book is worthy of further attention and energy on your part.

One other practice that none of the above, to my knowledge, promotes but would likely bless unreservedly: is the practice of a reading club/group. Prior to moving to Pasadena, I was in reading club of two: Tim P and myself. For approximately two years, we read off of a list of titles that Fuller was using for the Qualifying Exam for the SIS-PhD Admissions Requirement. We read about a book a month, but because we were both committed to reading broadly in missiology, we read some books that were flat-out boring and dry. That comes with the territory for those taking classes, right? Some texts are required reading, so you grab your bootstraps, and read. But, that practice, of reading closely, asking questions, and then engaging in the discussion with Tim, really expanded my understanding of mission, of Christ, and of what God was doing on campus. Even if we were reading about translation or ecclesiology, that practice began to expand my thinking, and subsequently, my practices for serving the staff in Houston. The reading club/group idea spilled over to life at Fuller during the last year, as I entered into a community of scholars, for whom, discussions on what we’re reading were already part of the social DNA, and encouraged by the faculty.

Moving away from strategies and practices- for, really, that is what the above is about: reading practices- I would return to what Coleman has emphasized in his post: leadership must be informed by reading. For my younger colleagues, some of their disappointment (and despair) in ministry comes from a lack of influence on campus among undergraduates. In part- not in total- this can be attributed to under-developed reading practices.

If we would have influence in the name of Jesus, we would do well to be like him: become readers, even wise readers: of Scripture, of a variety of disciplines, of a variety of types of literature: these practices will cultivate our hearts, our energy, our relationships, and our imagination for leadership. Stories connected to those practices are always worth reading.


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