A Word About Church Renewal

It’s not a secret that many churches throughout North America are declining and this is also true among the Churches of Christ. The declining number of people committing their lives to serve as ministers also comes with the decline among congregations. In some ways, this is a crisis in the making, which I discussed in the previous Mission Alive blog post The Future of Church in North America: Crisis, Reckoning, and Hope.

There are various reasons for the decline among churches but it is also one reason for the push behind church planting. We need to raise up more ministers willing to plant new churches and/or campus ministries that are capable of reaching the growing number of unchurched and dechurched people with the gospel. Yet, one objection raised in the form of a question is why not send more ministers to revitalize the declining churches.

This is a fair objection but I wonder if the people who raise such an objection understand what they are really asking. I had several people raise this objection in response to the previous post but their objection seemed to assume that renewal among an existing church is simply a matter of plugging in a minister to serve among that church. However, that’s a bad assumption. The reasons why any congregation is in decline are complex and have developed over many years, so to think the solution is simply hiring a new minister is naive. It is an attempt at a quick-fix solution and when it fails, as most quick-fix solutions do, the problems will only increase.

Most congregations among the Churches of Christ are fifty years plus in age and have an ethos and habitus that is deeply solidified. That is, the self-identity of the congregation, how it perceives the gospel and the world around them, and the way of being/doing church is firmly engrained as the way of life. For most churches, this way of life was established within the first five to ten years of existence. More often than not, there are also some unhealthy theological praxes among declining churches. These may stem from leadership issues and unresolved conflict to even some misunderstandings of scripture that all contribute to the decline. In my book Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God, I explain how misreadings of scripture hinder participation in the mission of God.

I say all this to say that it is unrealistic to believe any minister can simply begin serving with an existing church and lead the church in renewal. I am not saying that church renewal is impossible. Everything is possible where God is working and Mission Alive even offers consultation to existing churches seeking renewal. However, for such renewal to take shape, churches must be willing to reconsider some deeply entrenched assumptions and ways of being/doing church. That means churches must make adaptive changes, which are adjustments and modifications that require new ways of thinking and new practices. Some churches seeking renewal will find it but some won’t and sometimes the path to renewal might be so disruptive that it might not be worth the pursuit.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that we should give up entirely on existing churches because I certainly have not done so. I serve as the minister of the Newark Church of Christ, which was established in the 1960s and is trying to discern a new way forward as participants in the mission of God. But the most effective way in which Churches of Christ are going to reach a new generation of people with the gospel is by planting new churches and campus ministries. These new churches and campus ministries will do some things different from the way existing churches have done things and we have to be okay with that. My hope is that Churches of Christ will support more ministers to plant new churches and campus ministries.

If you want to know how your church can help with church planting, please contact Mission Alive. I know that Tod Vogt, the Executive Director of Mission Alive, would love to chat with you. I also serve on the board of Reflect Campus Missions, currently serving as the President of the board, and would love for you to contact us if you want to know more about planting campus missions. The Lord is giving us a pathway forward and it includes planting new churches and campus ministries.

____________________

K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

The Future of Church in North America: Crisis, Reckoning, and Hope

“I am usually slow to use the word ‘crisis’ to describe a situation, but it may well be apt for our day.” That was the first sentence of an article that Carson Reed wrote in a short article for the Mosaic blog titled Ministers in Short Supply. The crisis that Carson speaks of is that facing the Churches of Christ and I presume that most of the people reading this blog have some ties to this declining church tribe.

For those who don’t know who Carson Reed serves now as Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. He also has served as Executive Director for the Siber Institute for Church Ministry. This work involves helping match ministers with congregations that are seeking ministers to serve with these congregations. But a problem has emerged. According to Carson, there “is a sheer lack of persons to serve as ministers in our churches.” That’s the crisis he is referring to. In the article, Carson notes how the number of congregations seeking a minister and ministers looking for new ministry opportunities with churches was about evenly matched. However, that has changed, with there now being about a 1:15 ratio of one minister for every Church of Christ congregation seeking a new minister.

The reasons for this problem are varied and Carson’s blog post list some of the reasons, which I encourage you to read. As a minister myself, I am not surprised in the least bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love serving as a minister of the gospel and I am very blessed to serve with a wonderful congregation. But I also know there are more than a few Churches of Christ who want (even expect) a minister to help the church grow numerically but do so with little authority to lead churches that have little desire to change. Add to that the rise of secularism, the challenges of a pandemic, the increase of Christians who seem to prioritize politics over the gospel, and the overall decline in church membership, all make serving as a minister of the gospel very difficult (and unless you have served as a minister, you don’t have any idea what this is like). 

I also have concerns about the number of churches that are in decline. Churches, like any other organization, have life cycles. Sometimes churches are able to reimagine a new way of embodying the gospel that leads to renewal as participants in the mission of God but sometimes they are not. But this is why there is a great need for the mission work of planting new gospel seeds in North America.

I’m using the language of “planting new gospel seeds” intentionally. The task is to embody the gospel among a particular community of people and then begin sharing the story of the gospel with a few people. Such a task is the planting of a new gospel seed. Then, like a gardener, the task of ministry also involves cultivating the planted seed with the trust that God will bring about a new community of disciples. However, such communities will differ in some ways depending on their contexts, such as planting among a rural community, a college campus, or a marginalized urban community.

Besides helping Mission Alive, I also serve on the board of Reflect Campus Missions (currently serving as the president of the board). The vision of Reflect involves training new campus ministers through a campus ministry apprenticeship and then sending them out to plant new campus ministries. Mission Alive, as you know, has a vision of transforming marginalized communities through starting and renewing innovative churches. In fact, Mission Alive has identified one-hundred marginalized communities in North America to plant churches among

The need for new campus ministries and new church plants among marginalized communities is great, and it is the way of planting new gospel seeds. As I mentioned earlier, some established churches may find renewal as participants in the mission of God and I’m thankful for that. But my plea to the Churches of Christ is please consider supporting church planters and campus ministry planters so that new gospel seeds can be planted with new lives and communities being transformed in Christ.

For the kingdom, power, and glory of God!

____________________

K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

How Do We Navigate the Tension of Gospel and Culture?

We need to plant new churches and new campus ministries throughout North America. That I am 100% convinced of but I also know we need missionary planters that can navigate the tension that comes with embodying the gospel. Such tension is a question of how we live in a manner that is both faithful to Jesus and contextual to the local cultures.

Years ago I was serving with a church in New Jersey and one of the members of that church gave me a book to read, one which I enjoyed much and have since referred back to on occasions. The book I was given is called The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (2014, 2004) by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen. The book, as the title suggests, demonstrates how the Bible tells a coherent story by taking the reader through the story, or drama, of scripture. 

Of course, I firmly believe that a narrative reading of scripture matters if we are to faithfully live as participants in the mission of God. Bartholomew and Goheen explain why this narrative reading of scripture matters:

Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits—theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story. …If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should (The Drama of Scripture, p. 12).

That’s the rub and the reason a narrative reading of scripture matters. The reality is that everyone is living a particular story. However, when we follow and are baptized into Jesus Christ, God is raising us into a new life that is the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. That’s our new story as disciples of Christ, which is told to us through the narrative of scripture. But if we allow the Bible to be absorbed into a different story, then we will struggle to embody the good news of Jesus Christ and our witness as participants in the mission of God will be compromised.

Of course, I’ve also just named one of the fundamental credibility problems that Christianity has in North America. There are far too many people who profess the Christian faith but continue living out of an alternative story that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. The stories they live are formed by realities such as national or geographical locations. For example, I once had a Christian justify his subtle racism expressed in his condemnation of inter-racial marriages by saying, “I was born and raised in the south and that’s just the way things are around here.” But to be a Christian is about our location in Christ rather than the location of our childhood. Our baptism into Christ says that our old life has been buried with Christ and we have been raised to walk in a new life in Christ (Rom 6:3-4). So our point of departure for how we live can no longer be where we were raised and whatever was the accepted social-cultural norms of that location.

What makes any life-orienting story a story is the worldview it projects. Worldview stories offer a particular vision and set of values that direct what goal or end (telos) people should live for and how they should live in order to reach the goal. With this in mind, we can see how political ideologies, on both the right and left, offer a rival story to the gospel. Sadly though, too many Christians these days seem to be allowing the gospel story told within scripture to be absorbed into various political ideologies. One only needs to spend a few minutes scrolling through their social media feed to see examples.

Living our of the gospel story as told within the narrative of scripture raises a question. How do we navigate the tension of embodying the gospel in a manner that is coherent with the gospel but relevant to our cultural location in society? In others, how do live as followers of Jesus in a manner that is both faithful to Jesus but contextual to our locations?

Undoubtedly, this is a big question that cannot be fully answered with just one post. However, I recently read another book by Goheen and Bartholomew called Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Wolrdview (2008) which is very helpful in addressing the tension of embodying the gospel in our society. Several options that Goheen and Bartholomew reject include simply withdrawing from society, uncritically accommodating society, or living with a dualistic stance where we attempt to live a Christian view privately but publically fit in with the rest of society. 

Rather than withdrawal, accommodation, and dualism, the authors call for discernment that considers both the gospel and the culture of society. It is an exercise in critical thinking in which “we discern between the creational structure and design in all things and the religious misdirection and rebellion that pervert God’s good world” (Living at the Crossroads, p. 136). In other words, within every culture, there are likely aspects of life that reflect God’s creative and redemptive intent but also aspects that are departures from this intent. So for example, we can think of sex and sexual intimacy. God obviously created sex and sexual intimacy as a natural expression but we also know that sex and sexual intimacy have often departed from God’s intent in a fallen world corrupted by sin. This is one reason why when someone says, “It’s only natural,” we must critically evaluate whether the claim of being natural flows from God’s creative-redemptive intent or from a fallen-corrupted understanding.

I have mentioned and interacted with both books Bartholomew and Goheen because I find them helpful for us to think about the missional task we face as followers of Jesus living in North America in 2022 and beyond. If you’ve read the books, then great. If you haven’t, I would encourage you to add them to your list of books to read in the not-to-distant future.

____________________

K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

A Pentecost Sermon: Race, Slaves, and Women (Acts 2:17-18)

Only seven weeks ago the future looked bleak. The one whom they thought was the Messiah was dead. The disciples of Jesus hid in fear, and their spirits were broken. They had lost all hope.

But that changed when God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus began to appear to his disciples on different occasions over a period of forty days. When he appeared to them, he ate with them, studied the Hebrew Scriptures with them, and taught them about the good news of the kingdom of God.

At the end of these forty days, Jesus told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father, which was the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who had listened to Jesus teach about the kingdom of God over those past forty days, recognized that the coming of the Spirit is also the coming of the kingdom of God. They knew God had promised to restore the kingdom, and the promise of the Spirit meant that God was about to inaugurate it.

Jesus did not say their expectation was wrong or misguided, but that they should not concern themselves about the timing of its coming. Jesus told them to wait, and God would send the Spirit in God’s own good time. 

Then Jesus left. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. While we tend to think of this in spatial terms (as in “Jesus went up to heaven”), the primary point is not spatial but royal. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, was escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days by the angelic hosts and was given authority, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of God, and now ruled over a kingdom that would never end. He will reign until all the principalities and powers upon the earth are defeated, and the last enemy he will defeat is death itself.

But the disciples must wait. We must all wait for the final defeat of death. But the disciples, one hundred and twenty of them (including Mary, the mother of Jesus), waited in Jerusalem for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel though the gift of the Holy Spirit. They waited for the promised descent of the Spirit from the one who ascended to the throne.

They waited, and God waited…until Pentecost. God decided to restore the kingdom to Israel during the festival of Pentecost. This harvest festival celebrated God’s gracious provision. Pentecost actually begins on the second day of the Passover celebration, continues for seven weeks, and is celebrated in a climactic way on the 50th day of the festival, which is the eighth first day of the week since the beginning of the Feast of Weeks (or the Pentecost Festival). In Acts 2, Pentecost happened on the last day of the Festival, the first day of the week.

On Pentecost, God, through the enthroned Messiah, poured out the Spirit upon these disciples. They reaped the harvest of the resurrection and enthronement of the Messiah. Though Roman power and Jewish authorities, with the consent of a mob at Passover, killed the Messiah, God had raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father. In this way, God restored Israel through the reign of Jesus whom God declared both “Messiah and Lord.” God had restored the Davidic dynasty, a son of David now ruled in Israel once again. And the harvest of this new reign of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

Israel had hoped for this moment for centuries. The prophet Joel, centuries earlier, wrote a word of hope in the midst of Israel’s lament. Their land had experienced a horrific destruction. So much so that even the land lamented. And Joel injected a word of hope, a hope for the restoration of Israel.  Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28), 

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,

            your sons and daughters shall prophesy,

                        your old men shall dream dreams,

                                    your young men shall see visions.

            Even on the male and female slaves,

                        in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And Peter, on the day of Pentecost after the Spirit had descended on the disciples, announced, “This is that!”

The significance of this moment is difficult to overestimate. Whatever we say about it is less than what it fully means. It is a surprising work of God that explodes all expectations, anticipations, and limitations. What Joel envisions is the veritable shaking of the cosmos to its core; it is as if the universe has reversed its course. The light of the sun has been darkened, and the light of the mood has become blood red. Heaven and earth are on fire! What has ignited the cosmos?

At Pentecost, God poured the Holy Spirit upon Israel!

But what, exactly, does that mean in the light of Joel’s words. This Pentecostal moment is too significant, too important, and too meaningful to encapsulate in a single, brief homily. For this moment, I want to simply focus on Joel’s words, which Peter quoted and said, “This is that!”

But before we focus on Joel, an important piece of Israel’s history needs attention as part of the context of Peter’s pronouncement.

During Israel’s journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Canaan, God gave Moses some help. God took “some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25). Surprisingly, some thought this was a threat to Moses, and they objected; even Joshua wanted Moses to stop them from prophesying. How did Moses respond? He anticipated Joel’s words: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

Now, that day had come. At Pentecost, God pours the Spirit upon Israel, all of Israel. On that day, everyone who committed to Jesus as Lord, repented of their sins, and was immersed in water for the forgiveness of their sins received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). God gives the Spirit to everyone in Israel who follows the Messiah.

But Joel’s words say more than this. Not only does Peter declare that all Israel now receives God’s Spirit, he also—even without his own full understanding—announces the seismic change that has begun on this day.

God now includes “all flesh” within the kingdom of God. Though Peter could not see this very clearly in the beginning (as we learn from his experience at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10-11), Joel envisioned a moment when God would pour out the Spirit on “all flesh,” which includes the Gentiles. It includes all nations, all races. In fact, this is part of the purpose of Israel itself. The promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all nations, and that promise is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. Paul, for example, wrote in Galatians 3:14 that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham” came “to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14). All flesh includes all nations, all ethnicities, all colors, and all cultures. That God pours out the Spirit on all flesh means that God includes all, no matter what their race or nationality. The kingdom of God includes all languages, peoples, and nations. 

This was difficult for Peter to see, and it is still difficult for us to see. Hundreds of years of racism in the church testify that it has been difficult for the church. There was a time when some believed black people had no human soul and the native Americans were but savages. There was a time, during the Jim Crow era, that black Christians were told to worship in separate congregation, and I myself have seen Christians walk out of an assembly the first time an African American lead singing. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it has taken over 1900 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of racism. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The Gentiles are now included! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

God also makes no distinction between slave and free in the pouring out of the Spirit. Slavery, from the beginnings of human culture, was part of human economic and governmental systems. The social fabric of both the Ancient Near East and the Roman world was a top-down system with emperors and kings sitting at the top and slaves at the bottom. Slavery was not something the church could abolish in the first century; it was at the heart of the imperial system and the church was powerless to rid the empire of slavery.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of slavery. Even slaves will receive the Spirit of God, and they will be empowered to minister in the power of the Spirit just as any free person would be. In this principle, we see how the presence of the Spirit subverts cultural norms and rails against the empire. Slaves are people, too, and because they are Spirit-empowered and Spirit-indwelt human beings, the Spirit sows the seed of slavery’s destruction. The Spirit will teach us that slavery is a great evil, and no human being may steal another human being, own another human being, or exploit another’s labor for their own selfish interests. When God poured out the Spirit on slaves, it spelled the end of slavery even though it only ended in this country a little over 150 years ago and still exists in various forms throughout the world today, particularly in the sex slave industry. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1800 years for Christian people to fully recognize the evil of slavery. How could we have been so blind? Are not still blind to economic and social injustice, which are also forms of slavery?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” The slaves are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

And there is a third group in Joel’s words. God makes no distinction between male and female in the pouring out of the Spirit. The oppression of women, so dominant in the Ancient Near East and the Roman world, was an accepted reality. We don’t have to look very far in the ancient world to see how men abused, used, and marginalized women. They had little to no power, and the only exception would be those whose husbands had wealth and power. Even in Judaism, women were outsiders. They could not be disciples of Rabbis, even though they could be disciples of Jesus. They were marginalized, but Jesus empowered them. They could not testify in court, but Jesus told the women at the tomb to testify to other disciples. The women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

At the same time, here—in Peter’s quotation of Joel, in the pouring out of the Spirit—is the seed for the destruction of the marginalization of women. Women are empowered by the Spirit. God gifts women with the Spirit, and by the Spirit women, like men, prophesy. They dream dreams and have visions. In other words, God communicates with women in the same way God communicates with men. There is no distinction here; there is no hierarchy here. 

There were occasions when women prophesied in Israel’s Scripture. Miriam, for example, prophesied alongside of Moses and Aaron as one of the leaders of Israel (Exodus 15:20; Micah 6:4). Indeed, she led all Israel in worship after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21, Miriam sang to them [where “them” is masculine]). But such women were few though not rare (we could add Deborah and Huldah, for example, and Anna in Luke 2).

But now women will prophesy and experience visions alongside of men; and just as all men are included in Joel’s prophecy, so are all women. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21:9), and women in Corinth prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5). In this we see, in principle, how the Spirit’s presence is a planted seed within oppressive human culture. God intends to liberate women from past oppression, exploitation, and limitation. Unfortunately, and to our shame, the church has participated in this evil. Did you know that many among churches of Christ used 1 Timothy 2:12 to oppose women’s suffrage, the right to vote? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used silence as a way of denying women any kind of public voice whether in the church or in society (including opposing their entrance into legal and medical careers)? Did you know that many among churches of Christ used some texts to silence women from praying even in the presence of their husbands? When God poured out the Spirit on women, it spelled the end of their marginalization even though women only gained the right to vote in his country a hundred years ago. It should surprise us—but perhaps not—that it took over 1900 years for Christian people to recognize how their view of women limited their opportunities and careers as well as their voice in the church. How could we have been so blind? Are we not yet still blind?

When Peter said, “This is that,” he also said “something is different now.” Women are free! They are no longer powerless outsiders.

Peter says, “This is that!” All races, slaves, and women will prophesy. Surprise! Prophesying is not a minor gift. 

Lest some minimize the gift of prophecy or think it a subjective and private matter, let us remember that this gift is ranked above evangelists, teachers, and elders in Ephesians 4:11, and Paul explicitly says it is first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers in terms of the importance and significance of their gifts within the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:28). Prophets speak the word of God in ways that transcend evangelists, teachers, and elders. God gifts prophets with encouraging words, and God gifts all races, slaves, and women as prophets.

Over the centuries, the church has had to learn and tease out the meaning of Pentecost. We have had to learn that God includes all races and nations, though many Christians throughout history have oppressed and subjugated various nations and races. We have had to learn that God intends to free the slaves, though many Christians throughout history have owned slaves, traded in the buying and selling of slaves, and defended slavery as a moral good. We have had to learn that God intends to empower women to prophesy, though many Christians throughout history have silenced that gift in their assemblies so that women have had no voice and could share no word from God.

It is time, it seems to me, to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all nations and races. God has poured the Spirit upon all flesh. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of all believers and free all slaves and liberate people from every form of slavery. God has poured the Spirit upon the enslaved as well as the free. It is time to fully affirm the dignity, gifts, and Spirit-filled lives of women in the church. God has poured the Spirit upon women as well as men.

Paul said it long ago, and we can’t say it much better. In the spirit of Joel 2 and in the spirit of Pentecost and in the light of God’s promise to Abraham (which is the gift of the Holy Spirit), Paul announced the meaning of Pentecost in a surprising and culture-shattering statement (Galatians 3:28-29),

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah. And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise

Today is Pentecost, and today the Spirit fills the church, and the Spirit is still at work within the Church to illuminate our blinded and troubled hearts to free all people—all nations and races, slaves, and women—from their exclusion and oppression, even at the hands of church people.

May God have mercy!

* This is a repost of the same title originally posted on johnmarkhicks.com, June 9, 2019.

_________________________

John Mark Hicks, Ph.D. is a Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Additionally, he has served many years in ministry among the Churches of Christ and has authored numerous books, including his latest Around The Bible in 80 Days: The Story of God from Creation to New Creation. He and his wife, Jennifer, have five living children and two deceased.

Listening and Lament: A Posture for Missional Engagement

The temptation when we look at Paul’s missionary activity in the book of Acts is to assume it is a blueprint for how we might evangelize today in our context. Our cultural context is widely different today from what Paul was working with.  For one, Paul was a Jew. He knew the Jewish people well because he was one of them. In fact, the reason he could keep going to the synagogues to discuss scripture is that Christianity had not yet become separate from Judaism.  Paul had not just spent extended time listening to the Jews but had grown up a Jew (Leong, Race and Place, 117). When he went to a new place he was going to a people whose culture was familiar because they were his people.  

In fact, we don’t see Paul shifting his attention to the Gentiles until Acts 18:6-11. This is a significant turning point for Paul. Whereas we see God opening up the door to the Gentiles through Peter in Acts 10-11, up to the point of Acts 18 in the narrative, we have no primary focus on a Gentile audience. The conversions of Gentiles appear to be both secondary and accidental. Jacob Jervell points out the fixation Luke has on the Jewish mission for much of Acts: “For Luke it is more important to show the growth of the church up to the beginning of the Gentile mission… In the Jerusalem period, nothing seems to fail for the missionaries when the goal is winning Jews for the gospel. Only the leaders of the Jews, or at least some of them, reject the message…the ‘noble’ Jews are faithful to the Scriptures, and these are the ones who are converted (17:11ff)…” (Luke and the People of God, 46). Even during Paul’s message in Athens, Paul is trying to reach the Jews there with the gospel (17:16-18). When Paul decides to turn his complete attention to the Gentiles, it is for the first time. This was a profound discovery for me about Paul, since previously I had the impression that he immediately became an apostle to the gentiles, and that this was his focus throughout his whole ministry.  In fact, it was much later in his ministry that this became the case.  Another reminder of how fully rooted early Christianity was in Judaism.

In today’s context, when it comes to the Jewish people, they have now endured a long history of antisemitism and hatred at the hands of Christians. This is vastly different from Paul’s situation where Christianity had little history except for the history of the Jewish people and of the cross.  Paul, as well as all the Christians at this time, was identifying with the oppressed, not the oppressor. The message of the cross was still scandalous in that it involved the lordship of a man who had made himself powerless. For Jewish people and many others, Christianity now has come to resemble nothing different than other power-hungry, violent, greedy, and corrupt institutions of this world. This is perhaps most true for Jewish people today since their oppression at the hands of Christians has been the most extensive throughout history.  In Acts, it seems that people were able to retain their Jewish identities when becoming Christians.  Perhaps this is one way Jews today who become Christians might do so without having to identify with a Christianity that is so different from Christ, and instead with the more primitive faith that still existed under the umbrella of Judaism.

Likewise, how does mission look in a place where white Christians have used their power and privilege in abusive ways for hundreds of years? The ironic support of slavery, lynching, and continued racism from American Christians throughout its history is a disgusting reversal of primitive Christianity. How could we ignore this context that is so vastly different from the situation Paul was operating within? How can we ignore a context where it is not obvious that the Christian faith is different than other religions in its orientation towards power?

When we go to Acts it’s easy to detach how the mission of God played out in Acts from its context. If certain parts of Acts are mapped onto some missional efforts today without considering our own context, it may very well end up perpetuating colonial approaches. This is why Leong suggests the practices of listening and lament before evangelistic engagement (Race and Place, 117-120). Especially in the American context, and many other contexts throughout the world, these practices are imperative in building trust and establishing a different orientation towards power within communities. There are a variety of ways one can listen to their community, but this is a subject for a later blog.

What I’m saying here is not that conversions or evangelizing should never take place before years of listening and lamenting, or to even say that going into a community simply to evangelize with the gospel is wrong. To say this would seem to be putting God in a box. God can still move people towards the Christian faith, in some cases rather quickly, in ways that are often unexpected and not according to plan. However, our posture ought to be one of listening and lamenting so we can understand those we are trying to reach. This could take a long time of listening and lamenting, of people seeing the light of our good deeds (Matt. 5:16) before people will trust the Christian message enough to give their allegiance to Christ as Lord because of the obstacles mentioned above. Such a change in posture may also influence our evangelistic efforts in general so that evangelism is no longer incompatible with a posture of listening and lamenting.

_________________________

Jonathan Lichtenwalter has written and edited for the website evidenceforchristianity.org, articles for renew.org and his website jonwalt.com,  He has studied under John Oakes, Ph.D. (creator of the website evidenceforchristianity.org), and is currently getting a Master’s in Missional leadership from Rochester University. He is passionate about missional theology, apologetics, and biblical studies. He loves to use his writing and studies to build up the faith of others, to help disciples grow deeper in their understanding of scripture, and to share the truth of the gospel with others. You may contact Jonathan via email: j.dean_licht@yahoo.com.

Following Jesus: The Meaning and Challenge of Discipleship

I’m here in Malibu, California at Pepperdine University attending Harbor: The Pepperdine Bible Lectures. I believe this makes my tenth time coming to this beautiful campus. As I enjoy the scenery, the classes, and reconnecting with many friends, I am thinking about ministry. I can count the years I have served as a minister of the gospel by the calendar year, as I first started preaching for a little church in Arkansas back in 2000. So 2022 makes twenty-two years of serving as a minister of the gospel. The reason I mention this is because, for most of these years, the subject of discipleship has remained a popular topic. One of the reasons is that discipleship remains a struggle for Christianity in North America and this struggle is related to participation in the mission of God.

The Easter worship gathering of the Newark Church of Christ, whom I serve as a pastor.

Of course, history includes many examples of discipleship failure in Christianity. Germany and Rwanda are notable national examples. However, the United States is also an example of what happens when discipleship is trivialized. Regardless of what the founding fathers of this nation intended in its founding, the atrocities committed against Native Americans, Blacks, and other minorities that were carried out and/or supported by people claiming to be Christians remind us of how easily people fail in living as followers of Jesus. And the same can be said for Canada too.

The Meaning of Discipleship

I have already hinted at my understanding of what it means to be a disciple and take discipleship seriously. Yet one of the problems I have observed in twenty-two years of ministry is unclarity about what discipleship is. That’s a problem because if we don’t understand what discipleship is, we are certainly unlikely to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Understanding discipleship, for me, begins with hearing the call of Jesus to follow him. We can read of this calling in all four canonical Gospels but for our purposes, consider Mark’s Gospel. According to Mark, Jesus says, “Come, follow me . . . And I will send you out to fish for people” (Mk 1:17). In the original language, there are actually two words, deute and opisō, that have to do with following Jesus. Jesus is calling us to come to him and follow behind him as a learner, which was the typical Jewish practice of a student learning from his teacher (Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, p. 74). So to begin with, discipleship or to be a disciple of Jesus means that we become students of Jesus learning from him. And within the context of the Mark, as well as the other three Gospels, this discipleship involves following Jesus in order that we learn to live the kingdom life he lives.

Later on, Jesus begins to speak of his impending death on three occasions but every time he does, the disciples show their misunderstanding. They don’t understand yet what living as disciples means for the way they are to live life and so their misunderstanding elicits corrective teaching from Jesus (cf. 8:31-38; 9:30-37; 10:32-45). This is important to note because Jesus is not simply trying to teach his disciples a few new doctrines or a few new disciplines for living a good life. Rather, Jesus is trying to (re)form the very mindset of his disciples, replete with new beliefs, values, and practices that will result in a new way of living – the kingdom life.

So over twenty-two years of congregational ministry, I have come to understand discipleship to mean learning to live in the way of Jesus. That’s my simple way of defining what discipleship is. (On a side note, as one who preaches regularly, this understanding of discipleship very much shapes how I preach from the Bible, regardless of whether that’s from the Old Testament or New Testament. However, I am also aware of the limitations that as important as preaching the word of God is, preaching alone will not form Christians to live as disciples.)

Now about learning to live in the way of Jesus . . . This is easy to write about but much more difficult to do. That’s because following Jesus as his disciples always takes us to that place where we are called to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus to his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

The Challenge of Discipleship

Perhaps I’m wrong but as it appears to me now, I probably will never literally have to bear a cross for the sake of Jesus and neither will you. I’m thankful for that and I’m thankful for the faithfulness of our Christian brothers and sisters in other regions of the world who are persecuted because they follow Jesus. Yet, there is still a great challenge for us in learning to live our lives in the way of Jesus as we go about our daily responsibilities here in North America. Simply put, learning to live in the way of Jesus calls us not just to the cross (cf. Mk 8:34) but also to become the least of all as a servant to all (cf. Mk 9:35) so that, like Jesus, we too become servants who give of ourselves for others (cf. Mk 10:45).

In a society where might makes right and the strong survive, accepting the way of life we learn from Jesus is difficult. In fact, some will try dismissing and employ a host of hermeneutical gymnastics as they read the Bible in order to dismiss living in the way of Jesus as necessary and essential to being a disciple or Christian. So to guard against such a dismissal of discipleship, we must learn to not just believe in Jesus but also believe in what Jesus says and does. Then, and only then, does this difficult challenge of discipleship begin to make sense. When we learn to believe as Jesus believes, then his way of life – his beliefs, values, and practices – makes sense.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Jim Elliot who wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Along with four other missionaries, Jim Elliot was murdered while attempting to evangelize the Waodani natives of Ecuador. His words are the expression of one who believes Jesus and therefore believes that God answers the wretchedness of the cross with the glorious promise of resurrection.

Disciples and Churches

Coming back to where this article began, in twenty-two years of ministry I have learned how to help maintain a church but making disciples is still a challenge. Sometimes I wonder if I even know how this is done but then other days I see the way the church I serve embodies the gospel and I am pleased by what I see. I’m sure our Lord, Jesus Christ, is too. I’m sure many of you have similar thoughts, whether, like me, you serve as a pastor among an established church or whether you’ve planted a church, have started a campus ministry, or however you are serving in the kingdom of God.

That said, I can’t help but think of how many churches there are and know that there are far fewer disciples. As I say that, I recall what Mike Breen once wrote “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (Building A Discipleship Culture, pp. 11-12).  It’s hard to argue with such an observation.  

I don’t want to be misunderstood here either. I love the church, the big worldwide body of Christ because Jesus loves her and gave his life so that she could live. So I’m also thankful for the existence of local churches and the many good works that are done in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I also believe we need to plant more local churches and new campus ministries, which is why I also work with both Mission Alive and Reflect Campus Missions

Yet before making disciples we face another challenge. We cannot make disciples unless we are disciples, believers learning to live in the way of Jesus. As we do live in the way of Jesus, we’ll be the church Jesus has called us to be. That is, we’ll be that church living in the way of Jesus, forming others in the way of Jesus as they too become the church of Jesus Christ. Selah.

 

The Truth That Sets Us Free: Freedom, Rights, and The Bible for Followers of Jesus

Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “man is condemned to be free.”*

Really? Are people really condemned to be free? Perhaps so. Or perhaps it depends on the person that people follow.

Jesus once said, “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32, KJV). Although this quote from Jesus is often cited in legal contexts, such as an inscription on the walls of a courthouse, the freedom Jesus speaks of seems to be a blessing. 

Of course, freedom, as commonly understood in America, is highly valued as a God-given individual right of liberty. As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So from an American perspective, every person is free to do as they please, to speak freely without any restrictions as to religion, politics, the press, and even the right to assemble. The only caveat is when the exercise of freedom by one person causes harm to another but other than that, freedom in America means individual autonomy to do as one pleases.

Many Christians also seem to assume that there is a certain kind of liberty in Christ. To speak of “freedom in Christ” as the apostle Paul does in Galatians 5 often seems understood as freedom from traditions and legalistic practices of the Christian faith.

But I wonder if people really understand what freedom is or what it means to be free.

The Source of Freedom

When Sartre spoke of people being condemned to be free, he did so as an atheist and believed that existence proceeds essence. In other words, people are created as physical beings but who they are is yet to be determined and must be decided by them. “Man,” according to Sarte, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (Sartre, Man Is Condemned to be Free, 1948). Why so? Because there is not any God whose image people bear by virtue of their creation (divine nature) and with whom they are to have a relationship. So the essence of who people will become is entirely up to them. Such freedom is condemnation because even though people did not create themselves, they still possess the liberty to determine for themselves and bear the responsibility for this liberty (Sarte, 1948).

Well, I agree with Sartre insofar as if the way people conceive of freedom is their own liberty, as is the case of most Americans, then condemned they are. For Christians though, who take the Bible seriously, the story or narrative told within scripture compels us to think differently about freedom. That’s because the story that Christians are living, as it is told within scripture, begins with God and culminates in the kingdom of God.

Christians believe that all people are created equally in the image of God and so something of human nature or essence proceeds existence. Although it seems too much to make a claim of determinism and say that the entirety of human existence is decided by God before creation, bearing the divine image does make a claim about the purpose of life for people. When we turn to the story of creation in Genesis, we discover that bearing the divine image of God also comes with receiving dominion over the rest of creation. That is, God created people to serve as participants in his temple (the earth) by caring for the rest of creation in a benevolent manner, reflecting the image of God. 

As the story is told, there are two trees placed among the garden where Adam and Eve dwell. One is the tree of life, of which the man and woman are free to eat, and the other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which the couple is forbidden to eat from. Both trees are obviously symbolic of what is only God’s to give, which is life and the ability to discern good and evil or right and wrong (Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, 124). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve choose to eat from the forbidden tree which turns out to be catastrophic as human existence just devolves into a cosmic death characterized by evil.

Instead of living under the sovereign rule of God and allowing him to determine what is right and wrong, Adam and Eve wanted to make such determinations themselves. They chose independence from God instead of dependence upon God. As with all of humanity, Adam and Eve sought the independence to determine for themselves what is good and evil, and in some sense, freedom is what they got but it came with a price too. The independence sought by eating the forbidden tree didn’t actually result in knowing the difference between good and evil. That is because knowing what is good and evil belongs to God alone and is something that can never be fully achieved independent of God. Apart from God, humans choose evil and history bears witness to what that looks like.

The Gospel and Freedom, or Tyranny

Fortunately, God has never given up and left humanity to the fate of cosmic death. Instead, God has a redemptive plan of reconciliation and restoration that will be accomplished in the sending of his Son, Jesus the Messiah. This is the good news or gospel.

For Jesus, the gospel is the declaration that the kingdom of God has appeared, and with that comes a call to repentance and faith (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus is summoning people to live under the reign or rule of God once again because that is what a kingdom is — a king ruling over his servants. So with this invitational summons is the call to follow Jesus, which literally means to come behind Jesus and learn from him how to live as subjects of God’s kingdom.

People living under the kingdom reign of God is what Jesus understands freedom to be. In coming back to the words of Jesus about the truth setting us free, the context makes this clear. Following a dispute Jesus has with the Pharisees about his identity, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32, NRSV). Freedom is, for Jesus, to know the truth and that is only possible by continuing in his word. Note then that there is nothing in what Jesus says about freedom as individual autonomy to do as one determines for oneself. Rather, freedom is to live once again the life which God created people to live. 

True freedom then is living as participants in the kingdom of God as followers of King Jesus. Such participation is what it truly means to be free in Christ. This is is why in Galatians 5, where the apostle Paul speaks about freedom in Christ, he also speaks of living by the Spirit. What a contrast between the concept of freedom articulated in scripture and the concept of freedom held by most Americans.

Freedom, as it is understood in the western sense and as practiced in America, is individual autonomy. The American idea of freedom emerged from the Enlightenment, with its human-centric view that replaced God with reason as the source of knowledge. The goal of this western concept of freedom becomes the removal of any object that hinders the good(s) of human desire but in doing so it makes the idea of freedom itself the object of desire (Highfield, God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, 103-104). In other words, the idea of freedom that most Americans hold to be true is actually just another form of tyranny itself, as it enslaves humanity to a desire that can never be fully reached.

The struggle with freedom as tyranny is played out daily on social media and in the so-called culture wars. What is worse, is that many Christians are caught up in this struggle too (I too have found myself entangled in this struggle). Over the last year or so this struggle has become visible every time a Christian insists that their individual rights outweigh the well-being of others (Christians would do well to reread Philippians 2:1-13 in which Paul holds up the example of Jesus Christ giving up his rights and becoming an obedient slave even to the point of death). Hence the protest of wearing masks in public and other social-distancing measures aimed to mitigate the threat of Covid-19.

If individual autonomy is the freedom that people seek, then the words of Sartre about people being condemned to freedom are very prophetic. And sadly so, I might add.

True Freedom: Submission to King Jesus

So here is my parting thought as a pastor writing to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity as Christians was originally given as sort of an insult because of our association with Jesus Christ. 

Not a problem, as we shall gladly wear the name Christ or be labeled a Christian. But let’s remember, and dare I suggest, recover what that means. 

As Christians who take the Bible seriously, the cross or crucifixion of Jesus Christ is very central to our faith. It’s not the only aspect central to our faith, as the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus matter too but there isn’t any resurrection and exaltation without the crucifixion first. So the cross of Jesus absolutely matters but as N.T. Wright so eloquently says, the cross matters “…so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right” (Wright, The Day The Revolution Began, 22).

Believing that God is putting the world to right means abandoning the false notion of individual autonomy to do whatever one damn well pleases. Instead, to be made right by God is to live in submission to King Jesus as his followers and thereby participate in the kingdom of God. Found only in Christ, this righteousness is what true freedom entails and the world around us will never know of such freedom until they see a church that embodies such freedom.

May the church of Jesus Christ in America live by the Spirit in submission to her King as participants in the one and only kingdom of God! 

* This article was originally written for and published in Wineskins 21 (September 2021) and is available here.

_________________________

K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of the forthcoming book Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God that will be available through Wipf and Stock Publishers. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

The Horizon of Ministry in North America: 3 Challenges in (and not only for) the Chinese-Canadian Church

Growing up in the Chinese immigrant Church in Toronto, Canada has been quite a unique journey! Here is some of my background before I begin this article: I spent my childhood in the first Chinese church founded in Greater Toronto Area (GTA), submitted my life to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade, participated in weekly church events, and later on, felt the calling for seminary and full-time pastoral ministry. I’ve lived in Toronto almost my whole life. It is quite a cosmopolitan city, yet ironically, I would argue you could actually spend a lifetime here staying inside your own cultural bubble! In particular, the Chinese Canadian immigrant church has stayed quite content in its own bubble for quite some time. However, with the advent of second and third generations, there has recently been a bigger push to engage people beyond our ethnic/cultural context.

Today, I want to share some of the challenges in church ministry from the perspective of a second Generation Canadian-Born Chinese pastor. I want to particularly share about these challenges through three lenses:

  1. Cocooning: The challenge of the suburbs
  2. Disenchantment: The challenge of pragmatism
  3. Reading Diversely: The challenge of reading beyond

First, I have found that one of the biggest challenges to ministry and mission, especially in my suburban context, is ministering in the suburbs themselves and the commuter culture that comes with it. Author Albert Hsu once wrote, “Cocooning means that people get out less and stay home more. Commuter culture limits our time at home, so we isolate ourselves with our nuclear families and have little time for outside service or ministry. I once heard a pastor say that community has been replaced by cocoonity” (Hsu, The Suburban Christian, 192).

Most members of my church commute to work, commute back home and also commute to build community and church ministries. With the tiring nature of commuting, paired with the “cocooning culture” of suburban living, it’s not always easy to build community. Most days you just want to stay home after a long day of work, binge-watch Netflix and relax. Some days, you just want to hang out with your friends or family because it’s too tiring to engage with others.

Well, the suburban church definitely needs the reminder that we aren’t called to be a social club for Christians or just the people we like. We’re supposed to be followers of Jesus who follow His great commandment: Love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. In general, many people in the suburbs want community, yet they also desire their own private space. The suburban, middle-upper class culture of the northern suburbs of Toronto I live in is a perplexing one that wants the best of both worlds. However, if we recognize that we are kingdom citizens that are sent as a church family to join God in His mission, we should also take seriously our responsibility to live faithfully to Christ to live our everyday lives in the land of suburbia. As Albert Hsu asks:

If you are a suburban Christian, you must determine what kind of suburban Christian you are going to be. Will you be virtually indistinguishable from your neighbors, consuming and commuting and striving and acquiring like everyone else? Or will you live out a missional suburban Christianity, where you are connecting and giving and sharing and practicing hospitality, generosity, community and self-sacrifice? (Hsu, The Suburban Christian, 192).

Secondly, I contend that one of the major challenges in church ministry today is the evaporation of the supernatural, or as philosopher Charles Taylor defines it: a “disenchanted” world. Taylor and author Andrew Root have convinced me, as a local church pastor, of the immanent frame that so many of us Western Evangelicals have been trapped inside of in this secular age. This basically means: we are immersed in this “disenchanted world” where the “buffered self” seemingly protects us from all things supernatural through rationality and self-sufficiency. However, this immersion has also tended to cause us to disengage from the transcendent or awareness of God (Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age, 64-72). One could argue that instead of being Spirit-driven in our ministry and mission, Western Evangelicals (this includes the Chinese immigrant church in Canada) today have become overly pragmatic and typically use the next popular church model or even business-oriented methods to try to control the outcomes of church ministry. There is a real danger that we can fall into this trap of pragmatism: finding the right church model to fix all of our issues, create a rational product or curriculum for our people to consume, and believe people will come out in droves. I believe that we need, more than ever, to patiently spend time to develop our inner lives together so that we can faithfully discern what the outward steps can be in our churches and ministries. The challenge is: Where will we start?

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” – Rom 12:1-2 (MSG)

Lastly, another important challenge for Christian leaders today more than ever is to take the time to read from more diverse authors and practitioners. First off, I want to clarify that I am not advocating for some kind of “affirmative action” to police what we read or what we shouldn’t read. However, what I believe many of us have come to understand in today’s context, is to become more aware of how little we Christian leaders have read from the wider universal church body. As a Chinese-Canadian Christian, I have come to realize that my main source of theological/missiological education has mostly been from white, male authors. Most of the top Christian living and theological books have come from mainly this group of authors… many of whom I am grateful for, but I have also come to realize how important it is to read from the perspectives of other ethnic experiences and from those on the margins. Heck, I’ve rarely read books from Chinese Christian authors!

Even more specifically, I want to say that there should be more authorship from the Chinese-Canadian Christian experience! Too much, our main diet comes from white, western authors and theologians, which doesn’t mean they are bad but we would do well to read from black, Hispanic, African, Asian, etc authors whom God is working in and through… and I fully believe this will give us so much life-giving perspective! For example, I remember when I was first introduced to the African Bible Commentary. I learned so much from theological work of so many African Christians who spent the time to help us interpret scripture from lens of African scholars. I was in so much awe and wonder about the their unique cultural experience and stories that provided me with so much wisdom and insights from a culture quite different from my own.

In short, I recognize there are many more challenges facing Christian leaders today than I could have mentioned. I also recognize I didn’t even touch on one of the biggest challenges in the whole world in regards to the Covid-19 Pandemic. However, I hope some of my sharing today may have given you some Holy Spirit inspired “food for thought”. Whatever context you may find yourself in today, may Christ remind you that His presence is with you wherever you go, this is His ministry, and He invites you to join Him in the abundant life He has promised. Be faithful and trust Him with the journey and outcome!

____________________

Shu-Ling Lee is the Downtown Markham Campus Pastor at Richmond Hill Christian Community Church. Serving over a decade as the Worship Pastor, God expanded his passion for worship to include a desire for discipleship and mission… challenging Sunday worshippers to join God in His mission, wherever He’s placed them in their everyday local context. Shu is also a Canadian-Asian, born and raised. He enjoys basketball, theology and all things geek & tech and on the side, also the co-host for the Canadian Asian Missional Podcast (C.A.M.P.). He is married to Monica and they have three energetic young children. He holds degrees from York University (B.A., Sociology), Tyndale Seminary (M.Div, Worship & Liturgy), and Northern Seminary in Chicago, IL (D.Min, Missional Leadership/Contextual Theology).

The Horizon of Ministry in North America: Hope At The Margins from a Church Planter in Canada

We live on the frontier of the mission field – actually the far edge of it. Our family lives in the inner city of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, among a large Indigenous population. In 2011 my wife and I and our three children prayerfully moved into North Central Regina, and we have been living here ever since, living our lives for Jesus among the people. In this article, I would like to share several aspects of planting a church in this context that invites us to reflect on both the challenges and opportunities before us, as Christians in a rapidly changing world.

Post-Christendom. Recently we were having a Bible study with some younger adolescents. A girl who is about 12 years old, and whom I thought had a church background, asked if it hurt when Jesus was crucified. Imagine what the statement that “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” would mean to her. Little to nothing, given her question! The statement not only assumes a theological understanding of sin but also historical knowledge of crucifixion as an extremely painful form of execution. 

Post-Christendom can be described as the decline in the influence of Christian institutions in society – to the point where things such as the church and the Bible are neither central nor well-known. In Regina, there is a neighbourhood called Cathedral, which is named after the large churches (Roman Catholic and United Church of Canada) that are in the area, as well as several smaller ones. The Cathedral area is over 100 years old. But contrast that with two of the newest communities in Regina – Harbour Landing and Grasslands – developed in the 2010s. These neighbourhoods have no property set aside by the City of Regina for church buildings or cathedrals. A lot has changed in the last 100 years, and that includes the removal of the church as a tall, central figure in our communities, to disappearing off the map. So, what are the challenges and opportunities of the Christian mission on the margins?

The challenge on this front is clear. Biblical knowledge is little to none. Gone are the days when the youth went to Sunday school while their parents stayed home, as that was one to two generations ago. Gone also are a Christian moral framework and worldview. So our task is to help people learn the contents of the Bible, and especially the large story of God and his mission in this world. The opportunity here is equally exciting though. We help people learn to read the Bible in a new way by emphasizing the character of God, his mission to love and redeem the world, and the invitation to participate with him in this grand adventure.  What a glorious calling! In this missional way of reading the Bible, we are carefully observing God as he worked in the past, and listening deeply for how he desires to work in our lives now, all in eager anticipation for what he will do in the future to complete the story!

Residential School Impact and (Post-)Colonialism. In Canada, Indigenous peoples were for several generations forced to attend Residential Schools, run by various Christian denominations on behalf of the federal government. Among these schools, they were taught the English language and Christian teachings, but many also experienced physical torture, emotional trauma, and sexual abuse. So as one Christian Reformed Church leader described it, “They were offered a cup of cold water in the name of Christ, and it turned out to be battery acid.” So it is understandable that they would give us a long, cold look whenever we offer them anything of a Christian nature today. In fact, after the discovery of unmarked graves at a  number of Indian residential schools in 2021, several church buildings on and off reserves throughout the country were burnt to the ground. The backlash against Christendom was swift and strong. Today the hostility to Christianity is palpable in many Indigenous communities and I sympathize with much of that anger.  

Indian Residential Schools were a tragic marriage of Christianity with colonialism – European countries bent on empire. Unfortunately, the children of this marriage were not Hope and Dignity, but Despair and Poverty. Today many indigenous peoples, and other Canadians, want nothing to do with the church.  If that is what the church is like, who needs it?

So, what challenges and opportunities do this legacy of Christianity married to colonialism bring?  The big challenge here is to carry out the gospel mission in a context where many people are jaded and hostile toward Christians. This was a serious concern I had about 12 years ago when I was considering God’s call on my life to plant a church in the inner city of Regina. Would Indigenous people have anything to do with us? Would they even consider the Christian message? Would they even contemplate a friendship with us? We took comfort from one Indigenous woman’s wisdom.  She told us that while ethnicity is certainly a factor early on in a relationship, people sense whether you have genuine love in your heart or not and once they get to know you this is what carries the day. We have found that often to be true and so, while we will never be insiders to the culture, we have several relationships of mutual love and respect.  

The opportunity that this presents is very significant. Serving as a missionary from a position of weakness is very different from a position of power. As my Christian Reformed friend said, he was highly esteemed in Africa decades ago, as a white male Christian missionary. Now in the inner city of Regina, it is the exact opposite. Each of these words carries, in many people’s minds, a corrupting and coercive sense of privilege and power – white, male, Christian, missionary.  So how do we proceed? This challenge is also an opportunity because it forces us to be creative.  It requires that we dig deeper into the Christian story and reconsider how we tell it. No longer can we just construct a church building and sit back and wait for people to flock to it. Serving as a missionary requires that we go to the people, that we incarnate the gospel through our lives and actions, that we embody the message of sacrificial love and service to the world in real and tangible ways. The old question is relevant here: If our church disappeared tomorrow, would the community notice? Would they miss us? Would there be a serious hole? Our response to this opportunity lies in humility, self-sacrifice, and genuine love.    

Technology. While there are other things we have learned, I am choosing to focus on technology here because we work with a lot of youth. Let’s be honest. Technology has changed our lives, especially for young people. It has impacted how we shop (Amazon), relate (social media), bank, read (Kindle), access news (youth source their news from TikTok), listen to music (Youtube, Spotify), and go to school (Zoom). To lose one’s phone, or go somewhere with no internet access, is the kiss of death for many people.  

This immersion in technology has created several challenges. Most importantly, the advent of the smartphone with a reversible camera has had a dramatic impact on the mental health of adolescents (and adults as well). This development, in combination with social media, has created a context where people are able to get instant feedback on their public portrayals of themselves. Never before was this possible So a girl may be disheartened because her selfie did not get as many likes as her friends or boys may compare who has the most followers. Photos and videos are heavily curated, and some parents even hire professional photographers for their teens so they can publish the best possible pictures of themselves online.  

The problem here is that people are invited to form their identity based on their online activity. So they are elated when a photo is popular, and then depressed when a Tiktok they have created tanks. Their online activity becomes an extension of, and sometimes even the very heart of, who they are. In some cases people take on an alter ego, an alternate personality, assuming a different gender or ethnicity in an online game or social profile. The question becomes, what is their real identity?  Who are they really?  And what do they base their value on?

The opportunity in this is to help people form their identity in Christ. This is not a trite statement. In fact, the Bible holds up Jesus Christ as the ultimate reality. In a world of disparate versions of reality – virtual (VR), augmented (AR), and mixed (XR) – we as followers of Jesus are invited into the kingdom of God, where Jesus is the ultimate reality (UR)! This requires that we live into this reality deeply ourselves and that we teach it, model it, and advocate for it with all our hearts. It calls for us to embrace the teachings of Jesus as words of life, as words that have both a descriptive quality about this ultimate reality (the upside-down kingdom of God) and an imperatival call to adoration and obedience. To quote Simon Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

To sum matters up, church planting is an exciting adventure that is filled with many rewards and much adversity. The dynamic nature of Canadian culture, and its various subcultures, presents many challenges and opportunities for the Christian mission. With each challenge comes a requisite opportunity. As God’s people, living missionally requires us not to fall into the pit of despair over the rapidly changing landscape all around us. Our task calls us to be creative, listen deeply to our friends and neighbours, pray fervently, humble ourselves, serve sacrificially, and most crucially, listen carefully for the Spirit to lead us in His mission. And so in our corner of the world, we attest to the fact that there is hope at the margins of society!  

_________________________

Kevin Vance is a minister and church planter in the inner city of Regina, Saskatchewan. He works among youth in Regina and throughout the province to help them find hope and healing in Jesus Christ. He has a special passion for Indigenous youth and the reserves. He and his wife Lisa have been married since 1989 and have three grown children. Together they planted Gentle Road Church of Christ in North Central Regina in 2011, and dream about planting other churches in the toughest communities in Canada.

The Horizon of Ministry in North America: A Christian Educator in Canada Speaks

I appreciate the invitation to share what it means to be a Christian educator in the Canadian context. I moved to Canada in 2003 to serve at Western Christian College (WCC) in Regina, Saskatchewan; before this opportunity, I had ministered in places as diverse as New Orleans and Chicago. In New Orleans, I discovered that to be an effective minister or pastor, one needed deep missiological instincts, because it was there I first became a stranger in a strange land. I brought those missiological predispositions with me to my new country. 

Historically, Western Christian High School and College (dating back to 1945) was part of the Bible College Movement in Western Canada (everything west of Ontario, so geographically, most of the country), responding to the religious needs of the settlers. These settlers brought their churches with them and as they replicated them in the Canadian prairies, leaders felt the need for training centers for ministry preparation and ministry formation. 

I jumped into this historic stream in 2003 and served in Regina until 2009 when I returned to New Orleans to finish doctoral work. In 2015, I returned to Canada, but this time to Calgary, Alberta to serve as the president of Alberta Bible College (ABC). This institution began in 1932 in Lethbridge, Alberta to meet the pastoral and ministerial needs of the growing churches on the Western Canadian prairies. In 1937, ABC moved to Calgary. In 1997, the college purchased a previous YMCA and that has been our campus since then.

Western Christian College and High School (which closed in 2012) primarily served the needs of the acapella Churches of Christ, while Alberta Bible College started among the Disciples of Christ, eventually finding itself among the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, as those churches separated from the Disciples. WCC was mostly a high school with a small college attached; ABC has always been a postsecondary institution. This, then, is the historical backdrop in which I now work.

Culturally Canada finds itself somewhere between Europe and the United States, though that is not exactly a fair statement as culture is more complex than this quick comparison would allow but space precludes a deeper investigation. In simple terms, Canada is less “secular” than Europe but more so than the USA. Like Europe, particularly Britain, Canada supports or at least feigns support of the state church. Canada still acknowledges the Queen, who is still the titular head of the Church of England. However, that is more veneer than reality. Like most European (now Western) nations, life does not require a belief in the existence of God for its grounding (as noted by philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007). 

Canada possesses a weak but loud evangelical Protestantism, but more recent counts suggest that only 6% of the population are evangelicals (Rick Hiemstra, “Not Christian Anymore,” 2020). With the recent political polarization, Canadian evangelicalism is looking more like American evangelicalism. Calgary, where I live, is one of those more robust bastions of evangelical loyalty, so religious life is more pronounced but the percentage of Calgary’s population attending church is anyone’s guess. (See Joel Thiessen, The Meaning of Sunday, 2015, which uses residents of Calgary for the study’s primary research pool). Increasingly, therefore, the young people I meet on my travels have little or no roots in Christian religious traditions. Even students who feel the calling to come to Bible college do not generally come with any deep understanding of Christian tradition, nor do they necessarily have a church family of any kind.

Yet, that is only part of the story. The immigration of people from all over the world to Canada is an understated part of the story. The landscape in Canada is rapidly changing. Compared to the white settler population, these newcomers are quite religious. One might say that Canada remains nominally Christian only because of these immigrants. They also create a huge opportunity for the revival of religious life.

Just to take my city as an example, the Calgary metropolitan statistical area is comprised of 1.48 million people, of which more than 400,000 are immigrants. One group that catches my eye is the burgeoning group of second-generation descendants of immigrants. These young people were either born in Canada or were brought to Canada at such a young age that their earliest memories are in this country. As they grow into adulthood, they are what Will Herberg noted of second-generation immigrants at an earlier time in American history—they are “doubly alienated” (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, 1995). They are neither what their parents are, nor are they quite fully Canadian either. They live between the old world and the new world. 

Further to this, they learn at least two languages, one at home and another elsewhere. The ambiguity between their various social location can result in significant acculturative stress. When Christian immigrants arrive, they will join or plant a church that looks like the world they left behind; these churches will continue to communicate in their mother tongue and welcome those arriving from the homeland. For second-generation individuals, these churches are not their home. The older they become, and the more they adjust to the dominant culture, the stranger and more remote these transplanted churches feel to them.

A case in point is a Chinese church I am privileged to serve from time to time. The mother church attends to the needs of the older Chinese-speaking nationals. The younger adults have a separate English service—that is where I serve—however, these individuals are aging out of this group with no real place to go next. Either the English service becomes its own church—which would be difficult without dishonoring the elders—or the aging young people quit church, as it becomes increasingly awkward to be a part of a service designed for the youngest members of the congregation. Here I think is one of the biggest opportunities for church planting. Other ethnic groups coming to Canada are facing similar challenges, and they are expressing concern as their children become more Canadian. While some cultures are more resistant to the dominant culture, the pressure is persistent, and to some degree, inescapable on all newcomers.

Now to address the tie-in with my educational work in Canada. 44.2% of ABC’s students are non-Caucasian (not to mention our soon-to-arrive international students), and the number of our students born outside of Canada continues to grow. While we still serve students who are several generations deep in Canadian culture, we are working increasingly in a multicultural environment. This is ABC’s missional reality today. This is the field in which God has called us to announce his kingdom. 

Some of our students have come to this country to serve their people group here in North America. Either because their educational credentials are not recognized or because they have been called to ministry by virtue of their gifting and need specific education, God brings them to us. In some way, we teach them how to navigate the dominant culture as much as we teach them theology or guide them into a deeper season of spiritual formation. We certainly learn a lot from each other. 

From within this context, I dream of planting multicultural churches where these caught-in-between immigrants from various countries of origin learn to love each other, to hear each other stories, all the while becoming stronger because of their friendship with people who originate in other places. These students share so much in common. They are in a new world where their home language is not the lingua franca; they have lost their old worlds; and if they were born here, because of their location in their families of origin, they sense something is perpetually amiss. Old ways, favorite foods, grandparents, landscapes, traditions, are often left behind or lost. Their families have given up much to be in Canada. 

But they also bring many advantages. They are adept at moving from one culture to another. They have grit and resiliency, traits lacking in the dominant culture today. In Canada, immigrants contribute so much to our collective community, working hard to find their place in a new land. I am passionate about these students, because, as you have probably forgotten by this point, I too am an immigrant. 

_________________________

Dr. Stanley (“Stan”) N. Helton—the president of Alberta Bible College, now in his sixth year—is passionate about working with God’s people seeking God’s Mission. In addition to keeping up with his areas of interest, such as biblical languages, New Testament, the History of Christianity, Non-profit management, and Educational Administration, Stan tracks trends in church health, spiritual formation, and pastoral leadership. He loves to walk alongside preachers, church leaders, and those seeking to discern God’s call.