Wednesday, June 25, 2008

G.K. Chesterton

The latest Trinity Forum Reading, (always stimulating stuff), featured G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), and a short Father Brown story: The Oracle of the Dog. In a foreword P. Douglas Wilson writes about Chesterton's literary and Christian influence. Perhaps you know the story of when The Times newspaper invited him (with other authors) to submit essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" he replied;
Dear Sirs, I am, Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.

But then the foreword comments:
"Tellingly this deep confidence in his own faith was expressed in regular and robust engagement with people of all stripes and worldviews. His ongoing debates and conversations with the likes of Clarence Darrow, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell...George Bernard Shaw, illustrate the ease with which he was able to navigate, challenge, and unsettle the intellectual and literary world of his day.
Like William Wilberforce (seventy-five years earlier)....both men were willing to engage cheerfully and confidently, without pre-conditions, with others of differing and opposing views. Both believed that one must engage with a person to influence them - and further, that such engagement does not entail surrendering core principles.
Our day, by contrast, is characterized by the reverse: too many of us refuse to engage anyone who does not already share our worldview. And we suspect those who do engage in dialogue with their ideological opponents of capitulation or compromise."

Do you think there is less robust engagement, cheerfully and confidently engaging with others today ? And how might we do it?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Integrity Issues (4)

I have just read a paper delivered by a Ukrainian Christian leader (in Faith,Life and Witness, 1990), who told this story of Dr Bedecker, a preacher in the nineteenth century who traveled to Petrograd by horse and coach. At the end of a service one man came up to him, having committed his life to God, and said: "You saw perhaps that during the sermon I went out? I came to the coachman and asked: 'You brought this preacher?' 'Yes,' he replied. I asked a second question: 'Does he live as he preaches?' And I was surprised to hear what he said. 'No. Dr. Bedecker cannot preach so well as he lives. He lives better than he preaches.' "

Wow! What a testimony! To live better than we preach? I know it's so much more difficult. Too often performance expectations focus on "excellence in preaching." But, excellence in living is the higher goal. Do you agree?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Integrity Issues (3) Jesus in China

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune front page headline was Jesus in China. Two reporters have spent weeks on the road, researching how Christianity's rapid rise is reshaping this officially atheist nation. Peppered by striking conversion stories, they show how Christianity is spreading fast "by evangelical citizens at home."

And why is the government allowing this? They suggest it's partly because China's huge economic growth has weakened the country's "sense of ethics." One business man who became a Christian five years ago, "has launched a campaign to raise ethical awareness and revive a 'system of trust.''" He says: "We are not only doing business for man, we are doing business for heaven." Other influential figures advocate Christianity because it offers China a "common moral foundation capable of reducing corruption, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, promoting philathropy and even preventing pollution."

Now there are likely to be many reasons why the gospel is flourishing in China. And, of course, gospel is much more than ethics (- and clearly the new Chinese churches know that!) But what an interesting comment on the perceptions of a once hostile communist system. It reminds me of the early church "praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people (Acts 2:47).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Integrity Issues (2) - Video sermons

Commenting on Integrity Issues (1), Scott Cheatham alerted me to recent discussion on his blog, in which he questioned about preachers using complete video sermons from others to substitute for their own preaching. While sympathetic to an occasional series, say at vacation time, taking the place of the local preacher, he rightly urged caution. Several different aspects of this issue have emerged in ensuing discussion.

At one point he quoted me from 360degree Leadership: "Preaching is leadership." (That made me sit up and take notice!) What does that claim have to say about preachers substituting other's words, ideas, videos etc for their own? I think A GREAT DEAL! Scott hits the nail on the head.

No matter how small or large a local church, when a preacher is called to deliver God's Word, share God's vision, and challenge about God's will for them as God's community - no one else and nothing else should substitute. Preaching is not just about excellence of presentation, and five star gifting. It's about witnessing to this group of people by this called preacher God's authentic word to them. Noone else can see it and say it in this unique situation like the preacher who lives with and loves the people. Yes, it may look average, but it's authentic. That's how preachers lead.

Use of video is a large subject and I agree with Scott that there is a difference between video linking a preacher to several church sites (which has some integrity of vision and community), the occasional use of video series as celebrated by , and the widescale substitution of local preachers by a few "excellent" video preachers. I think that "preaching as leadership" remains a core issue, and I am grateful to Scott for raising it.

Where are my postings?

In church this morning, I was chided (kindly) by a couple of readers that my blogs have diminished in frequency. Well, I was grateful to know someone had noticed (- really I was!) I guess the combination of preparing two lectures for Prague, while continuing to finish off term grading, has sabotaged my blogging. I need your patience.

Actually your responses to new wine/new wineskins and integrity have stimulated me in my writing project, and I shall give a bird's eye view of both papers as they take final shape shortly. And one fellow blogger (Scott Cheatham), whose longevity and skill on-line greatly impresses me, opened up the issue of preachers using others' video sermons as a matter of integrity. In fact, I need to comment on that right now!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Integrity Issues

The second paper (see yesterday!) that I have to prepare addresses a joint meeting of the Ethics Commission and the Worship & Spirituality Commission of the Baptist World Alliance (- the annual Baptist world get-together!) It's called: "Issues of Integrity facing proclaimers of the gospel."

I wonder what particular issues register most urgently with preachers - personal integrity (sex, money, accountability), truthfulness, quality of relationships with God and others? What areas of integrity are the toughest, and what can be done to help? And do congregations perceive issues that might be painful for preachers to hear?

And, besides all this, does "proclaimers of the gospel" only mean preachers? Don't congregations themselves have responsibility to proclaim the gospel with integrity? What does this mean about us matching gospel claims with gospel practice? Do we show moral discernment with the "mind of Christ"? (1 Cor. 2:16).

There's so much to go at. As always any insights from you will be invaluable.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

New Wine/New Wineskins

Alas, grading has smothered all my creativity these last 10 days! However, I have emerged to two new writing projects. The first is a paper for an international conference of Baptist theological educators in Prague (- sounds exotic!) I present a paper on "Promoting a Subversive Spirituality: New Wineskins and New Wine in Mission and Evangelism."

I am just getting wound up about it! The title refers to an amazing text in Mark 2:22. Jesus is criticised that his disciples fail to fast like serious spiritual people. But he counters that they are like guests with the bridegroom. Fasting is inappropriate and absurd. Jesus is creating new relationships, forming a new community with new spirituality. And trying to fit this into old methods, old formulae, old forms of spirituality is as ridiculous as pouring new wine into ancient wineskins:
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins. (Mark 2:22).

The more I ponder this, the more challenging it becomes. New wine, bubbling, fermenting, calls for new forms. Jesus invites participation with him, the Father, and the Spirit in community, in kingdom, in new living. But every generation who understands and experiences the gospel afresh runs the danger of trying to fit it into old forms that cannot do justice to its freshness! Can you identify old wineskins in the way we do and think church that owe more to human entropy than to divine energy?

Its a huge topic, especially when you focus on mission and evangelism! As always, I welcome your prayers and input on my journey. What do you think?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vulnerable preaching

This morning we took an English friend to Willow Creek -. a popular pilgrimage for many of our overseas visitors. I was intrigued because Christianity Today (June 2008) ran a piece -Willow Creek's "Huge Shift" about this church's new plan to gear weekend services towards mature believers helping them grow in faith. The article said that Senior Pastor Bill Hybels was unavailable for comment.

However he preached this morning on 'Have you died yet?" Based on John 12:24, where one seed must die to bring forth a harvest, his (impressive) visual aid was 45 bushels (baskets) of wheat - the amount just 2 bushels of seeds can produce when they "die." While Jesus was obviously talking about his own life's mission, verses 25-25 challenge "everyone who bears Christ's name is going to do some dying themselves." Seekers need to die to foolishness (Ps 14:1a), to lying (Rom 1:20-23) and to self-atoning (Tit 3:5). Beginning and growing Christians need to die to sin (Rom 6:11), to the allurements of value systems of this world (1 John 2:15-17). Mature Christians need to know they can regress (1 Cor 15:31)...I die every day. As you can tell, I made notes (- my normal really helps me listen and reflect)!

But what made most impact was the way that Bill Hybels spoke from the heart. When he said: "You cannot produce full yield until you are fully yielded" you knew he himself was on the front line. When a preacher speaks from the heart about yielding, dying every day, and about depending utterly on the goodness of God.....with openness, vulnerability, just raw honesty about their current experience....that connects! Yes, there was emotion - one of the church young people had been tragically killed the previous night. Yes, he is a skilled and practiced preacher with amazing resources. But he preached Scripture out of personal conviction that rang true for me. I have no idea what the Lord has in store for Willow and him. But I think not making comments to the press, while preaching his heart out for God to form a yielded community is the way ahead.