God’s mission for the institutional church: What are you and your church doing?

This art byJon Birch of ASBO Jesus says it all about our current state of the church and mission.

Regarding many of our old and struggling mainline churches, Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon says:

Declining congregations have lost connection with the Christian church’s basic mission of helping people experience God and live the gospel message of life and hope. Without this sense of mission to keep the congregation focused beyond the doors of the church, the congregation turns inward and loses connection with its community. Before others will turn to a congregation as a life-giving resource in their lives, the congregation has to be a place that offers life. When traveling by plane, passengers are reminded that in the event of an emergency they should put on their own oxygen masks before helping others. In congregational renewal, a congregation reminds itself of and intentionally engages in the basic practices of Christianity. It realigns itself with the basic outward-focused mission of church. (From: Pathway to Renewal, Alban, 2008)

How and where do we start bridging the gulf, tearing down the walls, and reaching out to the unchurched? 

We, or God rather, may have to wake up the institutional church from its deep slumber first before it can do anything. Some may have already given up hope on the institutional church doing its part in God’s mission. Sometimes, I do feel that way.  I hope your churches and congregations are more active in mission and evangelism than some of our mainline churches. 

What are you and your churches doing in the area of mission and evangelism?

Reclaim the goodness of humanism

Humanists have gained a bad reputation from us Christians who tend toward a conservative Christian worldview. We quickly label certain groups and people on the left-of-center as “humanists,” e.g. ACLU, John Dewey, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell, and Gene Roddenberry, and etc. (I am a Star Trek fan so I’d have to give a cheer for Gene Roddenberry). The new term of “secular humanism” is used in anti-religious philosophy for the affirmation of humanity without reference to God. It’s a glorification of humanity without God in the picture. Thus, today, the word has strong secularistic and atheistic overtones because secular humanists do not believe in having an absolute moral code. The term “humanist” carries the assumption that a person subscribes to a belief in humanism so they are labelled as “secular humanists.” We have often used the word “humanists” in the wrong sense, including myself. So who were the humanists who were originally known as humanists? Humanists in the 14th-16th centuries were very religious. These early humanists were a diverse group and cannot be pigeon-holed into one single philosophy. Humanism was a movement of the Renaissance, which rose up as a reaction against scholasticism. It was out of an anti-scholasticism that the Christian Reformation arose in the 16th century. Humanism during the Renaissance wanted to return back to the original sources (ad fontes) and renew the church, not destroy it. The term “humanists” referred to those educated in the Greek and Latin classics. They were the literary scholarly types who were well-versed in Latin studies and pursued eloquent speech. Their desire to return back to the original sources was what triggered the Reformation of the 16th century. They felt that scholasticism was stale and did not provide the answers to the truth (which is not unlike how today’s post-modernists feel). Thus, came Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon (picture above), and Ulrich Zwingli. Good thing Luther returned to the original Greek and Hebrew and translated the bible into his modern day language of German. Today, we, as 21st century Christians, can and should rightfully reclaim the goodness of humanism.

The next christian apologists in the next christendom

Today, many large cities in North America like New York City, Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and some European cities like London have become very multicultural. People arriving from other nations have changed the dynamics of the established Christian heritage through migration. The western world, as we knew it, is no longer truly “western” in the historical sense of the word. People of other races, cultures and ethnicities have brought with them different cultural beliefs, practices and religions. As a result, the Christian heritage that once existed in western civilization has lost dominance and has become blended into the dominant western world. Reflecting upon biblical history, today’s social environment resembles something like the polytheistic society of ancient Israel. In ancient biblical Israel, the monotheistic Hebrew people lived amongst a diversity of cultures and religions. The dominant Israelite religion was eventually overshadowed by its surrounding cultures and religions. Within today’s context of North America and western European nations, the same thing has happened with our monotheistic Christian religion today.

How may this be relevant to Christianity in the 21st century? This century may show itself to be a most important one, especially in terms of the spread of Christianity in the world. This century may produce more Christian apologists than ever before. In the face of a multi-religious and multicultural environment, the role of Christian apologetics will act to distinguish Christianity from other faiths within the religious and cultural marketplace.

It will definitely seem politically-incorrect to even speak about a certain “strain on the Christian faith,” but being who I am, well, I may have a voice that is able to speak to this subject without being accused of being politically-incorrect. North America’s change into a multi-religious and multicultural society has placed a certain level of strain upon the whole dynamics of how one’s Christian faith plays a part in our society.

The role of Christian apologetics is going to be more important in today’s post-modern polytheistic and multicultural society. As Christians, our commitment in keeping Christ’s commandments to love God and one another has faded within the values of younger generations in the secular sphere. God’s Spirit will call men and women to rise to the challenge—to answer the call—to defend the faith within contemporary society. “Defending the faith” as apologists for Christ is not in any way, shape or form even remotely related to extreme Islamic fundamentalism or the early crusaders of the Roman Catholic Church. To do Christian apologistics is to do works of love for Christ and the gospel. Traditional Christian values are no longer the norm in our secular humanistic society today. In this type of shifting social and religious environment, the role of Christian apologetics will be extremely important–no matter what part of the world we are in.

In years ahead, the variety of Christian apologetists and their theologies will be even more diverse than what it has been in modern history. They will come from varied theologies, churches, and varied cultures and ethnicities. Lines that previously divided denominations, churches, cultures, race, and ethnicities will blur and blend together. Today’s church includes the global church. If you did not know, the majority of the Christian church today exists in the global south and is no longer located in the northern hemisphere. (Read: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins). It should not matter which denomination they are from because all denominations are important in eyes of Christ. This is the situation in our post-modern world. It may be difficult for many traditionalists to accept this but that is what I can foresee in the future. But by their works of love, the reign of God or “kingdom of God” in Christ will be distinguished and be visibly witnessed in those whose faith is strengthened by God’s Holy Spirit. This must be the norm if one’s Christian faith is to survive and grow in our shifting global environments. God’s holy and universal church is spreading and will spread across the entire world. It is happening before our own eyes this century, and we are witnesses to this.

If we are to recognize our church as apostolic and universal (catholic), we need to honor our previous generations of Christian apologists for the works of love they have done for the body of Christ—that is the holy Christian church. Throughout the history of the early Christian church, the works of love of Christian apologists were invaluable to the survival of the early church, e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Jerome. In the early Roman Catholic Church, there was Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. The great protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin brought immense freedom in the life of the church, which in turn, introduced great political and social freedoms to society. We also have modern apologists from the 20th century like Francis Schaeffer (Presbyterian), Norman Geisler (evangelical), C.S. Lewis (Anglican), G.K. Chesterton (Roman Catholic), and John W. Montgomery (Lutheran), who have contributed much to the intellectual Christian defense. There were also the Calvinist presuppositionalists apologists like Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark. Today’s leading evangelical apologists might be people like Lee Strobel, R.C. Sproul, and Josh McDowell, and then there are many more in the making. This may be the century for North American Christian apologetics.

5 Kinds of Christians

In the Fall edition of Leadership Journal, it reported on a new national survey that identifies five kinds of Christians. Active Christians (19%), Professing Christians (20%), Liturgical Christians (16%), Private Christians (24%), and Cultural Christians (21%). In this article, Helen Lee draws some conclusions that many of us may already intuitively know but we may not know what to do about it. She says that: 1) the local church is no longer considered the only outlet for spiritual growth; and 2) churches must develop relational- and community-oriented outreach.

Many young people in their 20s to 40s feel that faith is relevant but church is not. They see God as important but they do not find their church experience relevant. We are definitely not seeing professing, private, and cultural Christians busting through the doors of our traditional churches. So where are they? They’re at home…maybe surfing the internet? or walking around with their iPods?… but are they getting spiritually fed through technology? People in this hi-tech age can easily access Christian teaching and music through the Internet or TV just as easily as getting their feed for other personal interests in music. It kind of makes traditional church seem old fashioned and outdated. Is traditional church for everyone? Certainly not. Christians who are used to doing church the traditional way might blame the hi-tech age for privatizing people’s expression of faith and, therefore, they are not going to church. However, I think this copout claim is just an excuse. It is as far away from the truth as it can get. We need to use technology to reach the unreached people in our postmodern society. Technology is here to stay; it will advance even faster so we may as well use it to its highest potential for the sake of seeing the reign of God spread over the entire world.

Sure Christianity is supposed to be relational and not a do-it-yourself kind of religion. Technology is still inadequate to do this. Christians need to interact with other Christians in a loving community. But what if the community disappoints them and seems irrelevant in their day-to-day lives? They are telling us the truth when they say that it’s boring and a waste of their time. Many self-professed cultural and private Christians have decided that church is not relevant to them and so it’s not for them. As a result, they will either stop going to church or they will go on a very irregular basis. Why should people waste a Sunday morning sitting in church when they could be spending their time to relax and wind down after a busy week? What is so good about church that they should attend your church on Sunday mornings? Why do we ignore what they are telling us? Churches ignore this to their own peril. But if your church is only serving the older generation who are “Active Christians” and you’re happy and content about that, then what I’ve said here in this post is irrelevant to you. But if your church wants to reach out to the unchurched who are either Professing, Private, or Cultural Christians, then we need to build relationships with them so that we might have the opportunity to introduce Christ to them.

Many Christians today are saying that we need a new paradigm in missions. What is this new paradigm? This new paradigm is actually an old paradigm. It is a return to the basics. We need to go back to building relationships with the unchurched people so that we can we can reintroduce them to Jesus.

Emergent: Doug Pagitt’s theology of universalism

I have grown more disappointed about Emergent`s leaders. Why have I become disappointed? I recent heard an interview of an Emergent leader, Doug Pagitt, pastor at Solomon`s Porch and his theological beliefs really disappointed me and it left somewhat of a sour taste in my mouth. I must say, though, that his theology might not be representative of all of the Emergent leaders but it does give me a better idea of where some emergents stand. You can listen to it on YouTube here (part 1 and part 2). Doug Pagitt avoided all the questions that interviewer, Todd Friel, posed to him on Way of the Master Radio (part 1 and part 2). Pagitt didn’t answer even one of the questions in a forthright manner. He evaded the interviewer’s questions and didn’t seem knowledgeable about what Jesus actually said about hell. Doug Pagitt actually denied the existence of hell as a place where non-believers go to. He got very defensive and indirectly denied the existence of hell as a place where one’s soul goes to after this life on earth. Pagitt merely characterized hell as being a disconnection and disintegration with God but he denied its existence. Pagitt could not even agree with Jesus’ own description of hell as quoted from the bible. Friel also asked Pagitt: “I’m a good Buddhist, where does my soul go when I die?” Pagitt could not answer this question. He evaded his question and his response, if it was a response, was rather weak. His response to the question was: “You interact with God just as every other human being interacts with God.” However, this did not answer the question about the existence of hell being a place where non-believers go. Pagitt could not answer him directly and truthfully because if he did, he would have to reveal that he holds to a theology of universalism. This is where one believes that it does not matter which religion one believes in, eventually one will end up in heaven. Neither does Pagitt believe in the traditional biblical idea of judgment. He wanted to evade Friel’s question of what judgment was because he would otherwise have to reveal that he does not believe in an eternal damnation in a place called Hades. For Pagitt, hell is only a metaphor and does not really exist. Just listen to the interview yourself and you will understand. Judgment is only a metaphor because it is only a re-creation of a new heaven where everyone of any religion will end up. Furthermore, what really turned me off was that he turned around and attacked Friel, accusing him of not understanding the bible and how it should be used. That’s arrogant scholasticism! And note, scholasticism was what Luther fought against in the Roman Catholic church. Pagitt became defensive and resorted to using some high-end academic language that most ordinary post-modern people would not understand, e.g., “dual platonic cosmology”. Well, so much for trying to reach a post-modern generation by using academic language taught in seminary. If Pagitt really wants to do ministry to post-moderns, he better get it right with his evangelical brothers and sisters. Scholastic and generational pride should have no place in Christ’s church.

Today’s Evangelicals: still "sold out" for Christ

I was surprised to hear the term “fundamentalist” used by some people to describe evangelicals. Most evangelicals do not even know what a fundamentalist is. It is actually a pejorative term that should not be used to describe evangelicals. Today’s evangelical churches have no resemblance in form and style with the evangelical churches of the 1960s or 1970s. Today’s Evangelicals have become “mainline” Christianity. The old mainline churches have lost their place of primacy to the evangelicals as the shapers of mainstream society.

In my experience of being a blend of pentecostal-evangelical-Lutheran, I kind of have my foot in both worlds and am familiar with both worlds. Post-modern evangelicals have a very acute understanding of what the post-modern world is about. They feel they are called to engage the world, e.g., social, political, financial. The New Evangelicals would repudiate separatism and anti-academia. The New Evangelicals do not want to return to the good ol’ days of Little House on the Prairie and Leave it to Beaver. In fact, they have no idea what it is. The new generation of evangelicals see themselves as post-modern, missional, prophetic, theologically-minded, and desire to make the practice of their faith and theology relevant to today’s post-modern age.

In today’s post-modern evangelical churches (or meeting places as some call it), their worship music, language, culture, and ways of speaking are so post-modern that one might even have to look twice to differentiate it from post-modern culture. I am not saying that the post-modern evangelicals condone a lax moral lifestyle. They definitely do not condone sinful lifestyles. Style must be differentiated from substance. Today’s evangelicals want to live out their lives “sold out” for Christ but they have the style of the post-modern culture. I think this is very Pauline, i.e., “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor.9:22, TNIV). As missional Christians, aren’t we all called to carry out the Great Commission?