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.

The Horizon of Ministry in North America

Most of the books on my bookshelf are written by White American men. Not all, but most. Although most of the books on my shelf have benefited me as a conversation partner when it comes to the intersection of theology, mission, and culture, I am aware of the need for more diversity when it comes to the books I read. So over the last several years, I have started reading more books written by people of color, women, and to some extent, people who live outside of the United States.

I suspect most of us have the same issue. In fact, if we throw in podcasts, YouTube videos, and other forms of learning, the majority of the voices we give our attention to are White American men. There are many reasons for that, some of which are beyond our control, but point this out to say that we need to be more intentional in giving attention to more voices than just those of White American men.

For us serving in ministry in the United States, one of the voices we should give more attention to are those of our Canadian neighbors to the north. Whether we serve as church planters, pastors within an established church, or another sphere of Christian leadership, we can and should learn from Christian leaders living in Canada. My friends from Canada tell me that, in general, their nation as a society is about twenty years ahead of the United States in terms of where our western society as a whole is headed. So listening to some perspectives from our Canadian neighbors just might help those of us serving in America better anticipate the future that is coming.

Jeremy Hoover, a church planter in Sarnia, Ontario, and Jonathan Massimi, an Anglican pastor, have already contributed articles to this blog but there are other Canadian voices to hear. So beginning next week and the two weeks that follow, this blog is going to feature three different Canadian people serving in different capacities of Christian leadership. First, will be Stanley Helton, who serves as the president of Alberta Bible College. Besides years of ministry experience in both the United States and Canada, Stanley also writes to us from the perspective of a Christian educator. Next up will be Kevin Vance, a church planter in Regina, Saskatchewan. Kevin will share with us the challenges faced in church planting in a post-Christendom context where technology is ever-changing and some people within that society have suffered injustices. Lastly, will be Shu-Ling Lee, who writes to us a 2nd generation Canadian-born Chinese pastor serving with a church in the suburbs of Toronto, addresses the challenges presented by suburban ministry, pragmatism, and the need for diverse voices.

As always, if you believe that Mission Alive might be able to help you as you serve on mission with God in North America or would like to help support Mission Alive, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy this series of blog posts and share them with others.

Grace and Peace, Rex.

_________________________

K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He 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.

Creation and Embodied Discovery in Genesis 1-3

While the Imago Dei is not a prominent biblical theme, it shows up right at the beginning of scripture in Genesis 1-2 and so, understandably, becomes vital in Christian history to how we understand God and ourselves. Stanley J. Grenz explains how there have been two primary ways of understanding the Imago Dei in the west, structural and relational, with the former taking the increasingly prominent view in western Christian history (The Social God and the Relational Self, p. 142). The structural view also tends to identify certain attributes or capabilities, particularly “reason” or “will” as what make humans in the image of God. 

Although it makes sense that the church fathers would primarily focus on the qualities of “reason” and “will” given the influence of Greek philosophy in their day, this conception of what it means for humans to be in the image of God is not what we have in view in Genesis 1:26-27. In the ancient Near East, “an image was believed to contain the essence of that which it represented” (Walton, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 8). Generally, it was either the king or an idol who was supposed to have the image of God. However, in Genesis 1:26-27 we have people in general, both male and female, bearing the image of God, which would have been radically egalitarian in that day.

In the first creation account, we have a man as the pinnacle of God’s work (Gen. 1:27). Each of these aspects of our biblical origin story shows a communal, bodily, and even environmental understanding of the relationship between humans and the Creator. We start with humans reflecting the divine image, an image depicted in the plural that reflects not just the relationships that take place within God’s Triune self, but the relationships between God and other spiritual beings. 

In Genesis 1:26 we see God creating in community, probably in the author’s mind including what might be called the divine council, heavenly host, or even other Elohim (cf. Ps 82:1, LEB). While the author might not have had the Trinity in mind when saying “us,” including the Trinity in our exegesis of the passage would not conflict with the meaning of the text even though it might be anachronistic. The point that God identifies himself in the community is made either way by the “us” passages in Genesis. The author of Genesis saw fit to represent God’s identity in the plural in various places (Genesis 1:26, 3:24, 11:7, 18:20-21 cf. 19:13), which seems to indicate that God’s identity is to be portrayed as not alone but in relationship to others. Possibly the poetic parallelism of “them” in vs. 27 is also meant to reflect “us” of 1:26 in referring to the divine community. In this way, the human plurality would also mean a reflection of both divine plurality and unity.  In other words, God’s identity is social and relational, and no individual by him or herself represents the image of God.  

While the first creation story has already established humanity as the pinnacle of creation, in the second creation account man is made first after “the heavens and the earth.” Not even the plants have come up before man is created. The first task man is given is to work and take care of the earth (2:15). The adam (earthling) is formed from the adamah (ground), showing his intimate connection with the land and environment. The isha (woman) is formed from the ish (man) to show her intimate and harmonious connection to the man (Note: ish and isha are in other places in the Old Testament is translated as husband and wife). 

Everything is depicted as being in a harmonious relationship, with emphasis on humans and animals, humans and the earth, and male and female. However, in Genesis 3, the result of their disobedience is to disrupt these harmonious relationships. It would be a misreading to see the results of the fall and the “curses” as the way things were meant to be or even should be today. Instead, the curses are distortions of what God intended for humankind.  

God helps man learn through interaction with his environment, giving him tasks to do like caring for the earth, and the fieldwork of naming the animals. What is conspicuously missing from the account of Adam and Eve is that God directly teaches man anything. On the contrary, in allowing Adam to name the animals, God—knowing that Adam needed a female counterpart—allowed Adam to learn through experiment. As the first human, he would know very little at this point, being like an infant. He may not even have known that he is actually different than the rest of the animals, or that he is not simply an animal himself. 

God could have easily told Adam that he was different or needed a female counterpart. However, God let Adam learn through a “failed” experiment so he would know in his gut that he would need a partner different than what any other animal would be able to offer.  So God is not operating not from a “bobble-head” premise, in which people primarily learn through head-knowledge, but from James K.A. Smith’s premise that “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40). God treats Adam not primarily as a cognitive creature, but as an embodied learner, a “liturgical animal”, so to speak, who learns through a process of experimental habit and practice over time to be “a certain kind of person” (Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 24-25). This is how God gains ground in His relationship with Adam and helps Adam learn.

The way God interacts with Adam and helps him learn is through bodily experiments.  In the same way, ministers should not shy away from uncharted territory where people try different things until they find out what works for them or their ministry in life. Such tests and experiments should be encouraged even if they may lead to “failure.” Allowing such “failure” means entrusting people and helping them along in the process, even if the process does not necessarily “succeed” in the way we might measure success.  God allowed Adam to know what the way forward was because God allowed Adam, who bears the image of God, to walk through the process in an embodied way.  This would have built trust between Adam and God because God was not simply dictating to Adam what he should or should not do but allowed him to go through his own process of embodied discovery.

_________________________

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.

A Call For More Black Voices Among Emerging Leaders

My entire life, I have identified as someone who does things “by the book.” I’ve always craved knowledge. Seriously, there were no adults or facilitators present for many of my learning processes. I taught myself how to count by twos, partially how to read, and even sections of algebra in high school. Sometimes to a fault, I take pride in following the book.

I cannot count how many papers I have written with every sentence completed with at least one citation. These excessive citations are partly because I’m afraid of plagiarism. At the same time, I want to credit the original creator of an idea. I would participate in panels, and my statements would usually begin by “Brené Brown wrote…” “Claud Anderson said…” or “Kelly Brown Douglass believed…” I’ve found that there is tremendous value in those who can easily read, process, and regurgitate information. 

About one year ago, I realized that one voice was constantly missing. One voice was silenced. This one voice was silenced out of fear of rejection, critique, insecurity, and feelings of inadequacy. The voice that was missing was mine. The worst part, I silenced myself.

I remember the first time I heard that my voice didn’t matter. I carried those words with me from sixth grade until I was a 26-year-old doctoral student. Seeds of empowerment, courage, authenticity, and prophetic engagement were planted along the way. Finally, in January 2021, I had to own it. I had to own my voice that God had been developing quietly for years.

It’s important to note that I was already a preacher, church planter, pastor, published researcher, student, and teacher at this point. These are all things that required my voice. I always provided a voice, but I never offered my voice. The things that silenced my voice then still exist, like fear of rejection or feeling under-qualified. Honestly, it is still a complicated and ongoing process. 

Amid all of these feelings, I simultaneously promised my younger self and my future self. I vowed to speak anyway. My voice is present in conversation with all the people I have quoted for years. Whether writing or speaking, I bring my entire self, including my voice, to the assignment. 

I cannot speak to everything, but I can speak well to some things. Even when people, institutions, or even my inner critic tries to silence me, I embrace my ability to do all things through Christ, and I speak. I speak the truth- my truth, truths of those around me, and ultimately, God’s truth. I speak love in rooms filled with hate or fear. I speak faith to communities dying spiritually, and they may be unaware. I use a variety of sources from scripture to pop culture to music to get these messages across to God’s children across a variety of audiences. 

I will list a few topics to which I recognize I am anointed to speak. Literally, God calls and favors me to talk to and from these areas, and I pray that this list will inspire you to use your God-given voice too.

  1. I can speak to the context of a 27-year old Black man raised in the southern states of America. This qualifies me to use my voice, housed in my Black, God-given body, to speak to and alongside issues of racism and racial reconciliation. I cannot speak to the Black experience for all Black people as a monolith; however, I can speak to my experience individually and communally as a Black man.
  2. I can speak to the context of a man who is a product of women who have lead and loved despite experiencing deep pains such as domestic violence, rape, molestation, or sexism. This qualifies me to speak to areas where the church has been silent, but even more importantly, it allows me to create room for women or men who have experienced this to speak, be heard, feel validated, experience love, and minister to these areas in the community.
  3. I can speak to the context of being a third-generation preacher’s kid who has seen his father and grandfather sacrifice everything for the church to accomplish their commitment to God, even when the local church is not as faithful in return. This allows me to speak from my experiential knowledge that not all heroes wear capes, and God can reward you in due time far beyond what man can offer. 
  4. I can speak to the context of daily being flawed and imperfect myself. This qualifies me to speak to being in a long line of people, presently and historically, used by God to accomplish work far beyond the capacity, qualifications, and imagination of ourselves.
  5. I can speak to the context of being a millennial in the church, in which many of us have more reasons to leave the church than we have to stay in the church. After multiple attempts to bridge the gap in current church systems, this has allowed me to discern my calling to plant a church that targets those the church has typically overlooked or undervalued. 
  6. I can speak to the context of feeling like an outcast in my field with no standard qualifications. As it stands, I would not qualify to apply for the majority of the churches in my faith traditions today due to not being married and only being 27. This qualifies me to speak alongside marginalized and overlooked communities from a place of empathy and understanding. Side note, if this is you, do not worry. Neither Paul nor Jesus would qualify to preach or pastor there either. I do not claim to be either, but it is really good company!
  7. I can speak to the context of wanting to do anything other than ministry. Still, God found a way to navigate my desires from sports, fundraising, justice and health to casting a more holistic vision for God’s church. This qualifies me to speak to God using all of our experiences intentionally for God’s purpose, which I believe God wants to do in your life as well. 
  8. I can speak to the context of an activist who at one point wanted to do social justice work and did not know where to start. This qualifies me to speak to those needing the grace to begin their journeys, and it propels me to constantly search for words and actions that embody the politics of Jesus that was murdered for creating countercultural communities of faith and love in resistance to the empirical norms.

I engaged in a quick reflection of “I can speak to the context of ___________. This qualifies me to speak to ___________.” I encourage you to write down a few of these contexts and qualifications to discern areas where God may want to use your voice. This is not to say that the book is no longer important. For example, I read and study the Bible daily. Books are, however, no longer idolized to the point that they are a stumbling block to using the gifts that God has given both of us- our voices, our lives, and our testimony. So, speak! If you do not say it, who will? 

_________________________

Russell Andrew Pointer, Jr., serves as the church planter, lead servant, and pastor of Reformation Church Nashville (@reformnash). Russell is an alumnus of Morehouse College, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is currently a second-year Doctor of Ministry student at Boston University School of Theology researching the intersection between racism, cooperative economics, and group empowerment to re-imagine a kingdom economy.

When Everything’s On Fire: A Review of Brian Zahnd’s Book

Unless you have just emerged from a long hibernation, you know that we are living in some interesting times. Much of the world has faced a difficult challenge with the Covid-19 pandemic and all the repercussions that have followed. At the same time, there is a lot of reckoning taking place as evangelical Christianity faces scrutiny in regards to some highly publicized church scandals, Trump politics, and a past that includes racism, misogynism, and other problems that undermine their witness to the gospel. 

In response to this reckoning, there is a growing number of evangelicals saying that enough is enough. Some of them are shedding their conservative understanding of the Christian faith for a progressive expression, while others are renouncing their Christian faith altogether. This is a process called deconstruction, which I am sympathetic toward but also concerned with pastorally. Is it possible to deconstruct an evangelical Christian faith and eventually discover a reconstructed faith that is neither conservative nor liberal but still within the historical stream of orthodox Christian faith? 

I believe so and so does pastor Brian Zahnd. This is the reason for his latest book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes, which was published in late 2021 by InterVarsity Press. The book is currently available in both Kindle and hardback format, with the latter for a cost of $15.44. Brian Zahnd, for those who do not already know, is both a pastor and author. He has served in ministry for over thirty years, serving as the Lead Pastor for Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. 

The book is 183 pages and is divided into two sections with a prelude, followed by eleven chapters, and then a conclusion. Although Zahnd is quite capable of intellectual engagement with various theologians and philosophers, the book is very easy to read. Drawing on thoughts from people such as Frederick Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Chrysostom, and Paul Ricoeur, Zahnd engages scripture and Christian tradition. Writing as both a pastor and theologian, Zahnd describes what he believes is the essence of the Christian faith while disentangling that from the empiricism of modernity that evangelical Christianity has been embedded within. 

Understanding the way modernity shaped evangelicalism is important because that has impacted the way the Bible is read and regarded as the foundation of faith. Zahnd rightfully critiques this by returning to scripture to show that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the foundation of the Christian faith. “Christianity,” says Zahnd, “is not a series of proofs; it is the confession based on the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord” (p. 91). The foundation of the Christian faith is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ which is known to us first through the witness of the church (tradition) who passes along a collection of canonical writings we know as The Bible. So we begin with Jesus rather than the Bible, or as Zahnd says, “First Jesus, then church, and finally the Bible” (p. 97).

Of course, both Jesus and the Bible are indispensable to the formation of our Christian faith, which is why Zahnd believes that mysticism and a mystical reading of scripture are necessary. For those unfamiliar, this might sound suspicious but mysticism is about seeking God. Thus Zahnd says, “We too can be mystics who encounter God, follow God, wrestle with God, speak to and for God, compose prayers, open new doors, heart the divine heartbeat, proclaim the gospel, and, most importantly, give flesh to the Word of God in our own lives” (p. 130). Then in reading the Bible as a mystic, we are seeking a “second naiveté” (a term coined by Paul Ricoeur) that allows the Bible to be heard in new ways as we enter the narrative of scripture.

I enjoyed reading this book and believe it has much to offer Christianity in North America. And this is especially so in helping us move beyond the challenges of deconstruction. As one who deconstructed from a conservative-fundamentalist faith, a process that was initiated through the existential crisis that followed the death of my oldest son, I identify with the concerns of this book. Like Zahnd, I see problems with the conservative-evangelical understanding of Christian faith but I also see problems with the opposite, the reactionary progressive understanding of Christian faith. So I appreciate Zahnd wisely saying, 

When people from a conservative tradition begin to question some tenants [sic] of theological conservatism, they often find a way forward through a more progressive theology. But it should not be assumed that a progressive move is in every case the way forward. It’s important to understand that progressive fundamentalism is just as false and destructive as conservative fundamentalism. We seek to discover God as revealed in Christ, not in an ism, be it conservative or progressive. (p. 56).

He’s right. In discovering God, we follow Jesus Christ regardless of whether doing so appears to be conservative or progressive in the eyes of others.

One slight nuance I would make has to do with the way Zahnd describes his view of scripture. He says, 

I don’t have a low view of scripture; I have a high view of Christ. I hold the Scriptures as authoritative in informing and shaping the Christian faith. …I faithfully affirm the Bible as authoritative in the Christian faith, but the Bible is now where we begin—the Bible is not self-authenticating. (p. 96).

I agree with Zahnd. He does hold a high view of scripture and this should be easily apparent to anyone who listens to his sermons or reads his books. Also, with Zahnd, I believe that the Bible is authoritative in informing and shaping our faith as Christians. That’s the reason we have scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) but I believe we should retain the phrase “inspired by God” in our description of the Bible. I believe that Zahnd regards scripture as inspired by God but I’m mentioning this because I wish he would have explicitly said so. 

Like Zahnd, I understand that scripture is given to us by the church, who decided which writings should be included in our canon of scripture that we call the Bible. But I also believe that God was providentially at work guiding the authors of scripture to say what was necessary for the formation of our faith as well as providentially at work in the canonization process (and I’m sure Zahnd believes this too). This is what makes scripture inspired by God and that’s important because when we read the Bible, we are reading God’s word to us. Hence, the response of the assembly after the reading of scripture, “The word of the Lord.”

Needless to say though, if you’re looking for an enjoyable and invigorating read, go by this book. If you’re asking yourself how do Christians move beyond deconstruction, add Zahnd’s book to your library and consider what he has to say as you read.

_____________________

K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He 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.

Leaving Ministry for Mission

According to the Harvard Business Review article, “Who Is Driving the Great Resignation?” 4 million people quit their job in July of 2021.  That was down from a peak in April 2021.  The age group with the greatest increase in resignations was the 30–45-year-olds.  Employers all over the U.S. are watching this phenomenon and asking, “Why?”

On November 22, 2021, David Kinnaman and Carey Nieuwhof conducted a bonus episode of ChurchPulse Weekly titled, “Are Pastors Burning Out?”  They revealed the results of a recent study by Barna Group conducted in October of 2021 showing that 38% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry in the past 12 months.  Even more shocking is that Barna had conducted the same study in January of 2021 and found that 29% were seriously considering quitting.  That means between January and October of last year, the rate of pastors considering leaving ministry accelerated significantly.  Furthermore, roughly 1/3 of pastors considering quitting have approximately 20 years of ministry experience.

We find ourselves asking the same question employers are asking as they face the Great Resignation: “Why?”  What drives a well-trained minister with years of experience to leave the relative security of established church ministry?  The experience level of at least a third of them would indicate that it is not because they are naïve about ministry.  

In January of 2021, Mission Alive church planter and pastor of Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Charles Kiser and I conducted a study of 13 Mission Alive church planters.  Among the many compelling and helpful insights our study revealed, we learned that in January of 2021, their average age was 44.7 years old.  Contrary to common beliefs that church planters are wild-eyed, impetuous upstarts with no regard for the historic gospel, Mission Alive church planters tend to be seasoned ministry veterans who fervently desire to see God’s Kingdom arrive in visible and tangible forms.  Our study also revealed that while their age when they started varied widely from 23 years old to 45 years old (with some Mission Alive church planters not consulted for the study starting in their 50s and low 60s), the average age of the Mission Alive church planters who participated in the study when they started their church planting ministry was 36.5 years old—hardly newbies at church ministry.  It bears noting that the average age of Mission Alive church planters and the approximate age of 1/3 of pastors leaving traditional church ministry correlate closely.

The factors causing pastors to leave their ministry, especially after 20 years of ministry experience, are beyond the scope of this article and no doubt vary widely.  Yet, we in Mission Alive often hear pastors’ frustrations about toxic leadership, inflexible congregations and a lack of vision—to name a very few.  Some of these pastors reach out to Mission Alive to explore the possibility of starting new, innovative churches.  When they do, we frequently hear their desire to return to the vision and passion that got them into ministry in the first place.  We hear their heart’s desire to genuinely engage people who don’t fit into typical churches, those whose lives don’t match with the local congregation’s, those asking hard questions, and those who have been hurt by previous churches.  We hear their passion for God’s Mission and their desire to connect with the many others in their community who love God and want to connect to Jesus but can’t find a church where they are fully welcome.

According to the same Harvard Business Review article mentioned above, the two industries hit hardest by the Great Resignation are the tech industry and the healthcare industry.  Both industries have “experienced extreme increase in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”  The past two years of COVID-19 have created additional burdens for those in ministry as well.  The pandemic has forced ministers to become experts at internet communications.  At the same time, COVID-19 has caused a sharp increase in illnesses and deaths, forcing ministers to deal with much higher demands for pastoral care.  On top of all of this, ministers are dealing with an unprecedented polarization in their congregation rooted in how congregants respond to COVID-19, social unrest and the political climate.

If you have resigned from ministry in the past few years (or know someone who has), whether the resignation was out of frustration, exhaustion, burnout or self-preservation, God may still have a place for you in his greater Mission.  While you may need a rest, you may discover your calling has not disappeared.  In fact, as a seasoned pastor/preacher, you may discover your vision is clearer than ever.  Consider this article your personal invitation to explore with Mission Alive whether you are called to reinvest in God’s Mission and develop some new, innovative ways of ministering.  Consider that your best days of ministry may be ahead of you.  

Whether you are 30 or 60 years old, God may have a place for you in his Mission!  Do not be too quick to dismiss the mission of church planting.  There are many ways to start new churches and many roles you could play.  If your heart still burns to see people come to Christ and grow in Him, contact Mission Alive.  We’d love to chat with you about your calling.  Whether you contact Mission Alive or not, we honor your service and want to remind you that nothing you do in the name of Jesus is done in vain.

You can reach us at contact@missionalive.org.

_________________________

Tod Vogt, serves as the Executive Director of Mission Alive in Dallas, TX. Prior to working as Mission Alive’s Executive Director, he served as our Director of Equipping. Tod joined the Mission Alive team in 2007 after several years in local church ministry.  Tod began his full-time ministry as a church planting missionary among the Fon people of Benin, West Africa.