3 Things Churches Should Stop Saying

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1. “The methods change, but the message stays the same.”

This is a popular mantra of churches doing things to stay ‘culturally relevant.’  There is nothing inherently wrong with attempting cultural relevance, that I can see, but the rationale behind our methods deserves a better grounding than just “an unchanging message.”  That’s not real rationale for this method or that method.  In fact, a strong case can be made that methods are a message.  Methods are not neutral.  They are loaded.  They are loaded with a particular anthropology (take on human persons), whether we realize that or not.  And most importantly, they are loaded with influencing power to shape us into particular kinds of people.  We need to think critically about the methods we use, because they are part-and-parcel of a “message.”

2. Church gatherings as an “experience.”

It’s no longer very hip to talk about a “church service.”  It’s becoming popular to talk about an “experience” or maybe, “our worship experience.”  This seems to relocate the focus of gathering from God to… well… us.  Our experience… I mean, just listen to the way that sounds.  Say it out loud, “worship… experience.”  How far have we moved away from a God-centered gathering when the very name of the thing centers around the experience of the people?  Maybe I’m just a little hypersensitive to hints of consumerism in the church, but I think this needs a hard look, and probably a swift boot.

3. We’re “relevant”… “authentic”… “contemporary”… etc.

The fact that we call ourselves something does not make it so, and worse, calling ourselves that may even give us a false sense of security that we are that, without actually being it!  (Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.)  Let’s face it, even if we call ourselves “relevant” we’re probably trafficking in manifold levels of irrelevance.  We all are.  Calling ourselves “relevant” is the fastest way to mask our irrelevance from our own eyes, and keeps us from asking tough questions about whether what we’re doing is truly relevant at all.  “Authentic” as opposed to what?… fake? And are we a Mexican restaurant?  Finally, some churches are offering “contemporary” services.  Maybe they have a “traditional” and “contemporary” service.  Ah yes, church a la carte!  Anyhow, can we just stop using silly adjectives and just do what we do?

//Kirk out

 


The “Secular” Myth

Once upon a time there was no “secular.” – John Milbank

There was a time, many years ago, when you would have never heard the term “secular” or more importantly, thought of something like a “secular” space of discourse within a society.  Since the Enlightenment movement of the late 17th and 18th century, Western civilization has slowly but steadily adopted a paradigm that includes a distinct “secular” space within society.  It has become the mantra of both the “religious” and “non-religious.”  It is so deeply engrained into our culture today and so reflexively accepted that few people seem to think to question it.

So, What is “secular”?  Where did it come from?  Why does it matter?

About the time the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment movement were kicking off there developed (later) an underlining philosophy of a ‘universal rationality’ to be appealed to.  I’ll spare you all the history of it, but the take-away is that human society was to be built on human reason that is largely free from religious or traditioned beliefs or values.  This is the way toward human progress.  Shed the fables of religious folklore and embrace universal human reason.  This fabricated a space for universal reason within Western culture has been dubbed the “secular.”

It wasn’t until postmodern theorists began to seriously question the ideas of Modernity that this notion of the “secular” got some serious negative attention and critique.  Postmodern theorists got under the philosophical underpinnings of Modernity and exposed it for what it was/is.  They have tried to show us that we are ALL religious in some very important ways, that we ALL come to tables of discourse with views deeply informed by some tradition, and we ALL make ‘a priori’ (faith) commitments about the world.  In other words, everyone comes with a “worldview” that has many of the significant earmarks of a “religion.”  We may call ourselves “non-religious” because we don’t lay claim to a particular faith tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, etc.) but postmodern theorists have attempted to show us that our basic human situation is the same, irregardless of what we call it… that there is no universal rationality to be appealed to, and our contributions are always and ever informed by something like “religious” commitments, whether explicit or implicit.

Why does this matter?

I think the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment philosophy is helpful to clear the ground for people of whatever religious commitment to bring all the particularities of their religion into the spaces of politics, academics, science, etc.  People ought to be able to work from their particular religious persuasions, and not have to work to them to gain a hearing in a supposedly neutral secular space.  I also think that we should gain a deeper more nuanced appreciation of other traditions, that are not our own, as they bring the full-bodied beliefs and values that they hold, to the table.  Why should people have to ‘strip down’ their contributions from a tradition or a faith (whatever it is) to accommodate this so-called “secular” space, when everyone is already bringing in the fullness of their own worldviews, but maybe just not calling them “religious”?

Whether we’re talking about foreign policy, academia in our colleges and universities, our Christian churches, faith communities of all sorts, or any institutions that traffic in the big questions of life, the “secular” will be often appealed to as the savior of humanity or the enemy of religion.  It’s neither.  It want to suggest to you that it is a myth, and worst than that, whole constellations of traditioned beliefs and ‘faith’ commitments get smuggled in, under the banner of the “secular” while religious folks are told to drop their particular religion off at the door, in order to come to the table of discourse.  The for self-proclaimed “religious” (Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) or the self-proclaimed “non-religious” (agnostic, atheist, secularist)… the “secular” only exists in the minds of those who have bought the story that Modernity tried to sell us.  …But I’m not buying it.

//Kirk out

(picture is Jacques Derrida)


What Jesus sees

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35 Then Jesus went throughout all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. 38 Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.”  Matthew 9:35-38

Dear Christ-follower,

I want to ask you a personal question.  This is a question I’ve often asked myself, and a question that I think we all do well to reflect on.  This question is more important than your personal “calling,” or your vocation, or your circle of influence, or your church tradition or affiliation, or so many other important things.

“Do you see what Jesus sees?”

This is the defining question of your ministry to the world.

When you see people…  When you see the “crowds”… Do you really see them?  Do you really see what Jesus sees?

How many times have we been quick to pass judgment on others?  To be the accuser…  How many times have we been quick to assume that we know the story, and to render a verdict?  When we saw Miley Cyrus “dancing” at the VMAs… When a young woman gets pregnant out of wedlock… and when that young woman goes in for an abortion…  When we see people “living off the government”…  When we saw people dancing for joy in the streets of the Middle East after 9/11…  When we saw people dancing for joy in the streets of Washington D.C. after Osama bin Laden was killed…

Do we see what Jesus sees?  bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I want you to notice something from this passage in Matthew 9.  I want you to notice that right after the author sums up Jesus’ ministry to the people, and right before he quotes Jesus about the “harvest” in the world, he says this about Jesus, When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Bewildered and helpless…  Let that sink in. 

Imagine Jesus looking out over today’s crowds, the crowds that gather our homes, our churches, our bars, our schools, our hospitals, our prisons, and our government buildings.  Imagine Jesus looking out over the “culture wars,” and over the “war on terror” and imagine him looking with eyes of compassion… Imagine what he sees… bewildered and helpless…”  Can we see it?  Do we see with eyes of compassion?  Do we see the story that Jesus sees?

If we don’t see what Jesus sees, we just won’t love like Jesus loves. 

If we don’t see like Jesus sees, there is no “harvest.”  There is no reaching the world.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.”

My prayer for us, as followers of Jesus, is that we would see like Jesus sees, so that we might love like Jesus loves.

This passage indicts us all, and it invites us to stand up on that hillside, with Jesus, to see what he sees.

This is what the world is waiting for.

//Kirk out


The insufficiency of scripture

“You search the scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the scriptures point to me!

Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – Jesus  (John 5:39-40 NLT)
The Bible is not enough…  It never has been and it never will be.  The Bible is not sufficient for the Christian life.
Being a Christ-follower seems to me to be about living and loving, by the Spirit, in community, within a tradition, centered around Jesus.  Somehow, in all of that, there is a “relationship with God.”  See, we are not “people of the book” (the Bible)… we are “the people of God” and the book is sacred tradition for the people of God.  It was written and assembled by tradition, and has been given a place of authority in various ways among various Christian traditions throughout Christian history.  But I’m a little worried that some trends within the Church have given the Bible a place in the Christian life that God never intended, and it can never fill…
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in John 5 for trying to get their “life” from the scriptures.  Jesus claimed that the scriptures pointed to him and that real life was found in him, not in the scriptures.  The Pharisees were the masters of applying the Bible to their lives (and everyone else’s lives too!).  They were great at using the scriptures for spiritual leadership principles.  They had the “answers”!  But, Jesus breaks it to them… the scriptures are never the true source of life.  The real answer was right in front of them.
For us today, “Getting into the word” can never be a true source of life.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read the Bible, but the Bible is not an end.  The end is God.  Getting the “right beliefs” or the “right principles” from the Bible will never be a true source of life, but you wouldn’t know that by walking into your local Christian bookstore.  You can find plenty of Bibles that double as self-help books, complete with practical “life application” or “leadership principles” or “promises” or “Bible Answers” for all the success or problems of your life.  (As if the role of the Bible in the Christian life was that!?)  The Bible is not anything like a tidy “answer book”…  But I’m afraid we have too many treating it as if it is, and going on about our lives forgetting God, living a rather community-less, tradition-less, Godless Christianity, in a relationship with a book, that supposedly has “all the right answers” to life’s complexities.
Who needs God if we have all “the answers” in a book?  Who needs a community?  Who needs a tradition?  Who needs Jesus?
The Bible is important, yet it’s so insufficient.
Kirk out. :)

On Inspiration

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Christian scripture is a rich and complex compilation of writings from many authors over many centuries.  Scripture is considered an authoritative source for faith and practice by the Church primarily because it is considered writing that has been “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Others see scripture as purely a human invention, while some religions see their scriptures as dictated to men by God, the gods, or angels.  Historically, Christians have taken a somewhat unique position that is neither one of pure human invention, nor one of divine dictation.  Between those two ‘extremes’ there have been, and still are, many diverse views about how exactly God is involved, and how exactly humanity is involved.

A few years back, I was reading Chris Wright’s magnum opus “The Mission of God” where he characterizes the Bible as a ‘product’ of God’s own mission in the world – a mission of redemption and restoration.  Wright’s view about what scripture is got my wheels turning about what it might mean that scripture was “inspired by God” – God’s involvement and humanity’s involvement.

I also began to notice what some of the Bible’s authors were saying about there own doings and writings.  These are a few examples of passages that started to take on a new light…

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” I John 1:1-4 ESV

On a couple occasions, Paul refers to “my gospel” (Romans 2:16, 2 Timothy 2:8) as if what he preached and wrote came to him through encounters with Jesus:

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Galatians 1:11-12 ESV  (See also, 2 Corinthians 12:1-7)

Finally, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2 draws on God’s decisive act of self-revelation in Jesus Christ – God’s definitive work in the world – to the point that even the Old Testament passages are fitted around what God is presently doing in and through Jesus.  These acts of ‘hermeneutical audacity’ are commonplace throughout the New Testament, as the authors interpret the Old Testament around Jesus.  The authors seem to be most impressed by God’s work in the world as the source of inspiration.

Today, I see inspiration is a responsive interpretation of God’s work in the world.  “Responsive” because God’s people respond to God’s acts in the world – to the work of the Spirit.  “Interpretation” because the text comes to us through the authorship of culturally situated, finite human beings.  I think this faithfully honors both God’s involvement, and humanity’s involvement in this ‘product’ of the story of God’s redemptive mission in the world, in and through His people.

Kirk out


A story about a bag in a tree

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There’s a white plastic bag hanging on a branch of a tall tree in our backyard.  I don’t know where it came from or how it got there.  It’s been there for months now.  It has endured the change of the seasons – the snow, the rain, the sun, and the wind, and still it hangs on there, somehow clinging to that branch.

In our upstairs bathroom there’s a small window, and on a gusty day, when the window is open, I can hear the rustling of tree leaves and the distinct sound of a plastic bag waving in the wind.  It looks so out-of-place, like someone’s trash lodged among branches, which would otherwise be a vision of natural foliage.

We know a plastic bag is useful for carrying groceries, for lining our small trash receptacles around the house, for collecting our empty pop cans, but certainly not for hanging in the tree branches of our backyards.  This plastic bag has been manufactured at some factory, in some town, to be sold to someone, for some purpose.  At some point in time, we distilled some elements of creation down to a synthetic substance, gave it a form, packaged it, and shipped it to a buyer, who used it to service a consumer.  It’s a piece of utilitarian hardware for the modern age, and yet there it is, in my backyard, making its home among God’s creation.

For the first couple months, it bothered me every time I saw the plastic bag hanging there, out-of-place and out of reach.  I waited for the day that a hard rain or a strong wind would dislodge it and I could discard it.  But that day never came, and after a while, I got more accustom to its presence.  It became a fixture in the backyard, and as the months have rolled by, it’s become a source of humor for me, and even a wonder.  I laugh at the resiliency of this plastic bag to withstand some of the most inclement weather.  After a hard storm, I find myself checking up on this plastic bag to see if it has survived.  I wonder how it is that a fortunate wind could have placed this bag so high among the branches and yet even the harshest of storms will not bring it down.  So, there it hangs, and I have a feeling it’ll be there for months to come.

That’s my story about a bag in a tree.

You might be reading this, and waiting for the “turn.”  You’re waiting for me to turn this into an object lesson or pull some sort of principle or analogy out of it.  I’m sure I could force something like that, but I’m afraid something important might be lost, so I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to try to just let the story “be”… how I’ve told it, as it is, and I’m going to let it speak to you, if it speaks to you at all.  There is a plurality of meaning in narrative, in story, that just can’t be distilled down to a principle or an object lesson without remainder, as if I should be the one to tell you what it should mean to you.  The meaning is just as varied as people who read it.  There is something about the richness of the narratives of our lives, even as given through our own perspectives, that takes us beyond just the meaning that we might ascribe to it.  They take us beyond our principles, our truths, our lessons…

Story transcends.

Kirk out.


On “inerrancy” by Kurt Johnson

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The dialog over biblical “inerrancy” (a Bible with or without “error”) is getting renewed attention lately among some circles of Christian leaders and scholars.  If you’ve followed some of the top Christian blogs or ran across books or articles that tangle with this sort of thing, you might have noticed.  If you haven’t, or are unfamiliar with the subject, you might benefit from this post, anyhow.

So, here’s the deal… (and give me some space to expand on this afterward)

“Error” vs. “no error” or “infalible” vs. “falible” is the wrong question regarding the Bible.  To assume that this is the question to ask of the Bible is to take a posture toward the Bible that is deeply informed by an inherited paradigm, that deserves to be called into question.

Before the question of “error” vs. “no error” can even be raised, a question that goes a level deeper needs to be asked.  “Error or no error, according to who?”  It seems that we have been conditioned to ask questions of the biblical text inside of a paradigm that gives us categories for what we consider might constitute an error or not an error.  Debate exists, for those operating on this paradigm, on what actually constitutes an “error.”  Those that defend an inerrantist (no error) position seek to harmonize the contradictions between accounts of events, lack of archeological evidence, and places where it seems the author takes on a view of the universe that doesn’t accord with “modern science,” just to name a couple examples.  On the other hand, others are comfortable with recognizing “errors” in the Bible, attributing them to the cultural conditioning, forgery, mis-information, embellishment, “pre-scientific” worldviews, and a range of other things at work in the author at the time of writing.

At the heart of what some call “conservative” or “liberal” ends of the spectrum, as hinted at above, there is an underlining similarity.  Or we might say, in order to get to the fork in the road where I must choose an inerrant view or another view, I would have already had to travel down a road.  The road of a paradigm that suggests the questions I want to ask of the text, the text is there to inform me.  But what if the Bible isn’t here to answer all of my questions, what if it’s here to tell its own story, and what if that story doesn’t answer the questions we’re asking?  Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions?  Maybe the biblical authors didn’t care how old the earth is, or whether the Exodus account or Israel’s conquest is “history” as we would like it, or whether there were different accounts of the same events, etc.

If we find ourselves preoccupied with questions about whether the Bible maps onto what we understand about history or science or ethics or whatever, maybe we’re missing something important about the Bible – What it is, or what is isn’t, or maybe, what it ought to be to us.  What it “ought” to be to us… See, that’s where the underlining paradigms come to play.

Kirk out!