Faith Formation Among a Secular Society

Last week I was in Abilene, Texas for several days meeting with some ministers to discuss faith amongst a secular society and the implications for preaching and teaching. We were blessed to have with us both Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, and Randy Harris, who just recently retired from teaching Bible and theology classes at Abilene Christian University.

This conversation was really about  Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, which is the subtitle to Beck’s latest book Hunting Magic Eels (read my review here) but it also has to do with the monumental book by Charles Taylor called A Secular Age. Taylor’s book is a tome and I’m only halfway through the book but it is good and I highly recommend that those serving in ministry read the book. Of course, if you read my review of Beck’s book, you know that I highly recommend it too.

As a minister myself, I’m more interested in the formation of a faith that is formed by Christ. While understanding the nature of the secular age we live in is necessary, it is secondary to the formation of faith whether we are planting churches or pastoring in already established churches. So there are four other resources that I believe are worth mentioning here.

  1. Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006. Barton addresses some of the practices or disciplines that are necessary for our faith formation as followers of Jesus. What is important to remember is that we can’t transform ourselves but we can cultivate our lives towards a posture that is receptive to the transformation God desires to bring about through his Spirit. Frankly, just about any of Barton’s books are helpful for learning more about faith formation.
  2. Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing A Culture of Christoformity in the Church, Brazos Press, 2019. This is really required reading for anyone serving in a pastoral role, as the book addresses the particular culture the apostle Paul sought to cultivate among the churches he served. Of particular importance here is McKnight attention not just to the cruciform aspect of Jesus’s life but his entire life, death and resurrection, and ascension that is to form our faith. Hence, the term “Chrisoformity.”
  3. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. In some ways, this book is sort of like a Cliff Notes to Charles Taylor’s massive book mentioned above and for that matter alone, it’s a necessary read for any Christian engagement of faith and secularism. Smith goes further though and touches on how this conversation shapes our theology and leadership.
  4. A.J. Swoboda, After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith without Losing It, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021. Still hot off the press, this book addresses the deconstruction of faith, which is a phase that many Christians go through. What the book offers is a way forward for the reconstruction or reformation of faith that is squarely centered on Jesus Christ but without the reductionist move that ignores the complexities of the culture we live among.

Beyond the reformation of our faith, one of the challenges that Christianity in North America faces is stepping into the future with a missional posture. In our secular society (postmodern and post-Christendom), the influence of Christians has rapidly diminished and that evokes a loss. The reactionary temptation is preservation, trying to hold on to the past as much as that is possible. Interestingly, Charles Taylor makes this observation:

“In late-sixteenth century England, there was still only forms of Christianity which could be drawn on to fill the gap. In late-nineteenth century Europe, the gamut of choices had been crucially widened. Modalities of exclusive humanism were now options. And the often reactionary stance of the Church could only help make them more plausible.” (A Secular Age, p. 444).
Such an observation is worth noting because that seems to be the script in twentieth-century America too. However, what churches must understand is that the reactionary impulse of trying to conserve the “heyday” of the status quo (traditionalism) only decreases the influence. On the flip side, it is only in returning to the gospel, as recounted within scripture and the living tradition of the Christian faith, where we find open space for cultivating new possibilities in how churches might live as an influential portrait of the new creation God is bringing about in Christ.
The path forward is, as it always has been, in Christ Jesus. As we are reminded in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life” (New Jerusalem Bible).
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.

One Who Serves: Christ-Formed Pastoral Leadership

“Nothing surprises me anymore but I’m still astonished at just how opposite of Jesus is the leadership of some pastors.”

That was my response and the comment I left on a post in a private Facebook group that linked to the story of yet another church implosion. Another church in which top-down authoritarian and abusive leadership has resulted in a disaster that has become an all too familiar occurrence among Christianity in America.

In this case, the story was about Grace Chapel Church in Tennesee but, as I already alluded to and as you likely know, there are many other examples. Recently, Christianity Today has produced The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcasts series which explores how the Mars Hill Bible Church, planted and led by Pastor Mark Driscoll, eventually collapsed amid conflict stemming from authoritarian and abusive leadership. It’s worth your time to listen to the podcasts because we need to hear these stories and the truth revealed in them no matter appalling.

There are many other similar church stories like these that could be mentioned, some of which are discussed in a book by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer wrote a book called A Church Called Tov (2020). The authors are more concerned with identifying the problems and offering a solution out of this leadership morass that is confronting much of Christianity in America. If you have not read their book yet, I highly recommend you do so.

So it seems there is a big problem with leadership among Christianity in America that will only continue causing harm if not addressed. We have to ask questions about our leadership and address the root causes of toxic leadership. Here are just a few issues that come to mind…

  • What is the philosophy of Christian leadership?
  • What is/should be the organizational structure of the church?
  • How is leadership authority exercised? Who makes the decisions and how are these decisions made? How is conflict managed?
  • What protocols are in place to ensure transparency and integrity when accusations of abuse and other matters involving illegal, immoral, and/or unethical activity?
  • What is spiritual/pastoral guidance? What does discipleship look like? What is the difference between influence vs. manipulation?
  • How are leaders, including the “pastor,” accountable to others, and who has the authority to hold each leader accountable?

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but these questions do get at what I believe are some of the underlying problems. As mentioned earlier, it astonishes me just how opposite of Jesus is the leadership practice of some pastors. So much of what passes for Christianity in America seems to have forgotten that to be a Christian means following Jesus. As McKnight and Barringer put it, “Our allegiance to Jesus Christ establishes our identity, tells us how we are to live, points us in the direction we should go, and fills us with memories and hopes” (A Church Called Tov, p.  216). So it should also be for those who serve as leaders within a church or any Christian organization.

As we think more deeply about Christian leadership, let’s ponder this teaching from Jesus found in Luke 22:24-27…

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Jesus should be the point of departure for how we conceive of Christian leadership and Jesus came among us as a servant — even to the point of death on the cross. So let us follow Jesus and lead as servants. Rather than subscribing to the utilitarian ways we so often see in American society, let us lead with character. Yes, as I so often pray for, we need courage, conviction, and wisdom to lead effectively but we must also pass the duck test. If the way we lead looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and acts like Jesus, then we are on the right path but when it doesn’t, we need to repent.

People are watching, especially those in our churches, and they are not fooled. If we want them to follow Jesus, then our first duty as leaders is to follow Jesus ourselves. May the Spirit give us to courage, conviction, and wisdom to follow King Jesus!


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.

Gastric Hermeneutics: A Discussion On The Eucharist

By Jonathan Massimi

I am an Anglican, but I am not a cradle Anglican. My life as a Christian began in the Pentecostal Church.  My early faith was formed in a context that emphasized a life rooted in the Word and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Such an emphasis shaped our worship, where the music paved the way to the sermon, and the sermon, to the altar call.  The altar was the place where we met with God and He with us. It was an encounter where tears were a sacrament.

The carpeted stairs at the front of the sanctuary was where I believed one encountered God.  Through an experience at L’Arche Daybreak, that would change. At a service lead by a Jesuit priest, Christ was revealed to me, in a little bread and a sip of wine, served by a man with Downs Syndrome.  Placing this moment into a Pentecostal “liturgical framework,” I would say it was akin to an altar call experience. The difference here was, I wasn’t inviting Christ into my heart, rather, he was inviting me into His.  

Through participation in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, God invites us into His life. Through the bread and wine, He educates our palates so that we may taste his presence in our lives and in our world. 

From the beginning, the celebration of the Eucharist was an essential part of the Church’s worship (Acts 2:42). The Acts of the Apostle also indicate that this celebration occurred on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Luke 24:30-31 alludes to the fact that this meal was more than a memorial observance. Rather, it was the means by which Christ became present to his followers. In addition to Christ’s presence, this intimate gathering allowed the faithful to be present to one another through fellowship, prayer, and service (Acts 2:42-47). 

For many Christians today, to break bread and to drink wine remains the central Christian act. It is considered an observance that connects the faithful to the past, present, and future. In terms of the past, it connects the Church to that little group of disciples who first celebrated it with Jesus. Looking forward, the Eucharist becomes for the Church a foretaste of God’s intended future, a time where all will be gathered for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). In the present, the congregation is spiritually nourished, sustained, and guided by Christ’s presence, while being formed as his Body. These are perspectives on the Eucharist that have been shaped by the biblical text and the Church’s worship. I believe that to adequately understand the Eucharist, one should place it into its liturgical context. For it is through our worship that we truly come to understand what we believe. Or to put in colloquial terms, “The proof of the Eucharist is in the eating”. 

Historically, the Celebration of the Eucharist is made up of two parts: (1) The Liturgy of the Word and (2) The Liturgy of the Eucharist. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on the latter. 

Gregory Dix, in his book The Shape of the Liturgy, maintains that the Liturgy of the Eucharist conforms to the traditional fourfold shape which corresponds to the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. These actions are Taking, Blessing, Breaking, and Giving. These movements are given liturgical expression in the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction, and the Communion respectively. This is a structure that is represented in the early Eucharistic rites and has been present in the life of the Church throughout its history (Dix, 1986, 44ff).

At the Offertory, the gifts of Bread and Wine are presented. In this act the congregation is also offering themselves up to God. The blessing of the Bread and Wine begins with a dialogue between the Celebrant and the congregation. The Celebrant then consecrates the Bread and Wine, setting them apart for God’s use. The Celebrant offers praise to God and the congregation joins by singing the Sanctus. An ancient hymn of praise is taken both from the writings of Isaiah in which he has a vision of worship in heaven and the moment of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Isa 6:3; Matt 21:9). Then the Celebrant repeats the words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper and prays that the Holy Spirit would be present and active in the people and in the Bread and Wine, transforming both into the Body of Christ. 

There is a diversity of views concerning what happens at the moment of Consecration. However, many would agree that the Eucharist is not simply a recalling of history. It is a Sacrament. A Sacrament can be defined as something visible and tangible in the world, in this case, Bread and Wine, through which God discloses himself. Simply put, Christ becomes present.

 One cannot pinpoint the exact moment this occurs. Rather, we must look at the entire process. When we do what Jesus did, and by using his words, he becomes associated with the Bread and Wine.  The gifts brought to the Table are transformed and given back to us as vehicles of Christ’s life and presence. There is an interesting reciprocity embedded here, in that when we give our gifts to Christ, he, in turn, gifts us with himself through the Meal. Making the Eucharist somewhat of a gift exchange. This to say, what happens at Consecration is not mere sentimentalizing about something that is in the past; it is a true re-membering, a calling back into our reality of the one eternal sacrifice of the Cross while also being a means by which the Church looks forward to the consummation of the Kingdom; where we will once again be gathered around the Table (Rev 19:6-9). 

After the Bread and Wine have been consecrated it is given to all baptized Christians. Those who wish to participate come forward where they receive the Host and Chalice. Once all have received, the Celebrant will lead the congregation in prayer followed by a Doxology. Strengthened by Scripture, nourished by Sacrament, and having been attuned to God’s presence at Table, the faithful are then sent out to be attentive to Christ’s presence in the world with the following words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”  

In going through this Order of Service, I believe the Liturgy offers some important insights for the Christian life. 

The first thing the Liturgy teaches us is that worship is primarily about God. This notion finds expression in the Liturgy based on the fact that the Eucharist is the culminating act within the service. Our songs, sermons, and gifts are all taken up into our source of life, Jesus Christ, who sustains us with his presence made manifest in the Bread and Wine. In consuming these elements we also come to understand the Eucharist as a formative act.

Through our Eucharistic worship, the Church becomes the Body of Christ and is formed as a visible manifestation of the Kingdom before a watching world. Norman Wirzba expands on this notion in his book Food and Faith when he writes, 

Creatures are currently living a deficient form of life. What they need is the healing and strengthening of membership, a healing in which the church, understood as the continuation on earth of Christ’s practices or way of being, has a vital role to play. When this healing takes place, a healing that is glimpsed at the Eucharistic table in the eating that people do, relationships are transformed so that they witness to true life (Wirzba, 2011, 147).

As a witness, those who gather around the Table experience a reordering of life. Once they lived as individuals, now they are part of a Body, where there is a mutuality and reciprocity among its parts (1 Cor 12:12-27). In addition, there is a call to live a life, not marked by conflict, but by peace. This notion comes to the fore when believers exchange the Peace. That special act where the faithful are bringing into the present the peace and unity that characterizes the future Kingdom. In relation to this, the Liturgy also helps us to see the Eucharist in an eschatological light. Wirzba notes, the Eucharist is “the site where people, having consumed Jesus as their food and drink, are re-created by Christ and so taste a slice of heaven” (Wirzba, 2011, 149). A taste of the heavenly banquet. 

Finally, in receiving the Bread and Wine, Jesus Christ, we learn how to receive the other as a “gift.” As mentioned, the Eucharist contains within itself reciprocity, whereby we not only receive the other, we also give of ourselves as Christ did. Therefore, 

When Jesus broke bread and shared the cup as the giving of his own body and blood, and then asked his followers to “Do this in remembrance of me,” he instituted a new way of eating in which followers are invited to give their lives to each other, to turn themselves into food for others, and in so doing nurture and strengthen the memberships of life (Wirzba, 2011, 153-154).

Hence, in the Liturgy, we encounter a way of being for and with one another.  

In celebrating the Eucharist our lives are re-ordered as we re-member.  Our wills are shaped to desire what God desires and to love what God loves.  In participating in the Eucharist, I have come to learn that the way to God’s heart is through our stomachs. 


Jonathan Massimi, D.Min lives in Ontario, Canada where he serves as an Anglican Priest, is a supervisor of community centers for the city of Kitchener, and community organizer. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL. He is married to Erika and together they have three children.

What High School Football Taught Me About Developing Leaders

By Charles Kiser

I played football in high school for the mighty Fort Worth Christian Cardinals. (Okay, so it was a tiny private school; but it was Texas football so we took it very seriously!)*

We had the same routine every week during the football season. On Monday afternoon we would suit up and crowd into the coaches’ office — this dingy, poorly lit space above the gymnasium. For the next hour, we would watch the film of the game from the past Friday. They’d play it on one of those huge rear-projection TVs that someone had donated to the school several decades before; the kind where you could only see the picture clearly if you were directly in front of it. After each play, the coaches would comment on what went well, or what didn’t go well. They’d celebrate the good plays and offer critique about the bad ones.

After that, we’d watch the film of the next opponent, and the coaches would begin to prepare us for the upcoming game. We’d hit the practice field in the afternoons for the rest of the week to revisit fundamentals, work on our game strategy, and run plays.

Then Friday would come. I always loved the anticipation in the air on Fridays. We got to play the game! We got to see how well we prepared, what we were made of, how good our team was.

When Monday arrived the next week we’d start the process all over again.

My high school football experience provides some solid principles about leadership development and discipleship. It reveals a cycle that occurs repeatedly when leaders invest in emerging leaders and help them build competency for their ministry:


  1. Prepare. As we invest in others, we prepare them for the ministry tasks ahead of them. We teach them. We give them the best information we have on the subject. We offer them exercises to help them reflect. In my football days, this was watching the film of the next opponent and daily practice in preparation for the game.
  2. Participate. In this stage, we do the ministry task together. We play the game! How we participate together is determined by where the emerging leader is in her/his development: we might have them help us, or they might be ready for the driver seat and we take a helping role.
  3. Process. After we play the game, we pause to debrief and process how it went. We look over the game film. We discuss three questions together: 1) What went well? (Celebration); 2) What didn’t go well? (Improvement); 3) What do we want to remember to do next time? (Action).

Jesus demonstrates these stages as he teaches the disciples (prepare), invites them to minister alongside him, and also sends them out in pairs to minister (participate), and dialogues and teaches them further after their ministry experiences (process).

How have you seen these stages at work in your own development?

Which of these stages is particularly challenging for you as you develop emerging leaders?

* This post was originally published on October 26, 2015.


Charles Kiser, D.Min serves as the pastor of Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas, a church he helped plant in 2008. 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 Julie and together they have two children.

“Hunting Magic Eels” by Richard Beck

By K. Rex Butts.

We live in an age of secularism, which likely is of little surprise to anyone. The challenge of secularism is what Charles Taylor describes as disenchantment in his monumental book Our Secular Age. Whereas past societies lived with an enchanted view of life in which an awareness of a transcendent reality, such as God, was present in all aspects of life, we now distinguish between the sacred and ordinary. This distinction is one of disenchantment, in which we live with a buffer between us and the transcendent that allows us to live much of our life, if not all, as though God is nonexistent. A consequence of this secular reality there is a growing skepticism in which doubts and disbelief. Believing and living with such faith is more difficult than ever.

Enter into the conversation the latest book from Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, 2021. Published by Broadleaf Books in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this book consists of four sections, divided into eleven chapters along with an introduction and epilogue, and is 237 pages in length. The author serves as a Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and in addition to teaching at the collegiate level, he teaches a weekly Bible study for inmates at a maximum-security prison. The book itself answers the question of how believers may cultivate a faith that sees the presence of God in every aspect of life. Readers will encounter a very easy-to-read book that weaves together concepts with real-life stories and some very concrete practices for recovering and maintaining an enchanted faith. 

One issue with secularism is that no matter how disenchanted life seemingly becomes, people can never completely escape the sacred. For example, people believe that human life matters and that people possess a dignity that cannot be explained away by the machination of the modern world. So when someone suffers, people will offer their thoughts and prayers. Also, a question on the minds of many people has to do with the meaning of life. As Beck points out, “Our shared belief in the sacred value of human beings is not a factual, empirical, testable, observable, data-driven claim. Our dignity is an enchantment, the ghost of God still haunting the machine…” (p. 48).

For Christians, recovering an enchanted faith has to do with encountering the God who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. So Beck turns to some wells of spirituality found within Christianity, such as (but not limited to) Thomas Merton, Blaise Pascal, St. John of the Cross, Flanary O’Connor, J.R. Tolkien, and Martin Luther King Jr., to go along with his engagement of scripture. 

The third section of the book gets to the very theological praxis necessary for cultivating an enchanted faith. I use the phrase theological praxis because these chapters discuss practices that are embedded within Christian theology, which matters because any separation between theology and practice is bound for a disaster. The four chapters—Liturgical Enchantments, Contemplative Enchantments, Charismatic Enchantments, and Celtic Enchantments—draw on a wide array of Christian traditions. From prayers and icons to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and chokti (and Orthodox prayer rope), to a radical openness to God, and to the poetic way of seeing all life as sacred, space opens for reimagining what it means to embody an enchanted Christian faith. 

What also is appreciated here is both the invitational tone that Beck writes with as well as his awareness of some of the problems that can arise. For example, he acknowledges the excesses that can exist within Charismatic spirituality but he also knows there are problems with the detached skepticism of our age and in his estimation, the latter is a greater danger (p. 151). 

As more people seek to recover some sense of an enchanted life, one of the great challenges in America is the trend towards a consumer-oriented spirituality. I once met a person who described herself as an Episcopalian, Buddhist, and Wikan. That’s probably an extreme but people do wish to pick-and-choose their own spirituality and, as we know, more and more people are turning away from Christianity as an option. (To be fair, I believe the Christian church bears some responsibility for this turn from Christianity in the way that too many Christians have, in short, lived a life that is more American than reflective of the gospel.)

Aware of the challenge brought about by the consumeristic mindset, a good question is whether recovery of enchantment is possible through a spirituality that one chooses rather than receives. Beck raises the question on pages 214-215:

Can an enchantment we pick up and lay down at a whim really give our lives the sacred meaning and weight we’ve been longing for? Can an enchantment we choose for ourselves become anything but narcissistic, a reflection of our own highly selective and cropped self-image? Immanent enchantments are on the rise because they are perfectly suited to our consumeristic age. And that is the fatal, fundamental flaw.

He continues a paragraph later saying:

The critical issue, Then, for both the religious and spiritual like, is this; Can your enchantment judge, criticize, and unsettle you? How can your enchantments point out your selfishness and self-indulgence? Can your enchantment, be it burning sage for your spell or singing, ‘God bless America’ In your pew, hold a mirror up to your hypocrisy? Can your enchantment weigh your nation or political party on the scales and find it wanting? Does your enchantment create sacrificial obligations and duties in your life that you cannot avoid or ignore? Does your enchantment call you to extend grace to people you’d prefer to hate? Does your enchantment bust up your cozy self-satisfaction and dogmatic self-righteousness?

The answer for me is no! Not if we create a “spirituality” of our own making, even one that borrows elements of Christianity, rather than receiving the fullness of Christian faith available to us through scripture and tradition. This is why discipleship, forming people in the way of Jesus, is so necessary for ministry among church plants and already established churches. 

I really enjoyed reading Hunting Magic Eels and believe you will too. More importantly, I believe you will benefit from reading this book, especially if you serve as a leader among a Christian community. In fact, I regard this book as the most helpful book I have read thus far in 2021, which is why I highly recommend you read it. Like any book, there may be a place or two where you find yourself in minor disagreement but overall this book is on point and comes at a very necessary time.


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.

Contextual Theology: On Doing More than Reflecting on Movies with Bible Verses*

By David E. Fitch

It used to be that doing contextual theology meant reflecting on popular movies in sermons. Barth supposedly said that the pastor must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But cultural engagement demands so much more today. And it has become so much more essential. The dominant culture is no longer Christian. We must now understand the socio cultural orbits, the economics, power structures, what drives a culture if indeed we are to respond to the cultural issues pressing in on us. We must know the places we live if are to proclaim the gospel in ways that connect.

Contextual Theology has sometimes received a bad rap. The idea of doing theological reflection off one’s culture suggests we are simply looking for God in the culture happenings around us. Implied is that we do this apart from special revelation. Culture drives what we think about God and the Bible necessarily takes a back seat.. And so, contextual theology therefore is liberal. Get it?

But this is oversimplistic. This might be a fair critique of contextual theology done in one particular way, but this is only one way (and I would argue the most naïve of the ways) of doing contextual theology. The fact is, even the most conservative of us, even those among us focused most exclusively on the Bible as the only true source of knowing God, must eventually do contextual theology. As I say every once in a while to Scot McKnight and other Biblical studies people at Northern Seminary (where I teach), it is not enough to know the Bible (in its own context), we must be able to extend its truth into the culture (i.e. the current context). We must proclaim the gospel in the language and terms of the culture we find ourselves in so that the gospel can be heard, understood and received. Everybody has got to do contextual theology!

We must proclaim the gospel in the language and terms of the culture we find ourselves in. 

The most intuitive way North Americans think about doing contextual theology is as individuals engaging the context from one of two different starting points: the context or the Bible. In both cases the individual as expert starts in one place and goes to the second. For instance, the individual starts by inhabiting the culture, making observations, and then moving to God, reflecting on those observations based on the received understandings of God and how He works. Evangelicals do this when they reflect on movies with Bible verses. Protestant liberals do this when they reflect on experiences of the divine using experiential categories of God – like the infinite, the good, love, or the “ground of being.” The locus for God is in the culture, from which we reflect using our received categories. We might call this the correlative model (after Tillich). The weakness in this model is that our view of God can easily be absorbed by the culture we sit in resulting in a cultural god. We lose the redemptive transformative God in the process.

Those who start from the other starting point – the received categories – often begin with the Bible. We read the truth about God off the Bible and then enter a culture and seek to translate the truth into the language and culture symbols in the host culture. The locus for God is in the received tradition and/or Scripture, from which we then seek to find or even impose these understandings into a host culture. We might call this the revelatory model (after Barth?). The weakness here in this model is a presumptive impulse. Often we assume that we do not need to understand the culture and its language on its own terms before we try to translate the terms of the Bible into it. The culture is messed up. It is under the reign of Satan. We have the truth. Enough said.

Over against these modern ways based in the individual, I am prone to contextual models based in a community as a way of life inhabiting a context long enough to become present and conversant in language and socio-dynamics of a context. It takes a community to translate the gospel for a culture, especially if there are not yet words or practices in which to make sense of the gospel story. It is only in a community of belief and practice where a way of life can give visible witness so that what we say can make sense to onlookers. From this space, we can dialogue piece by piece with our neighbors, and a vital interaction with what God is doing can take place. We might call this the ‘immigrant” model (after Yoder? Hauerwas? Etc.). It is as if we transplant a way of life among a community, and start to engage our culture, assimilating, recognizing the goodness, embracing the things celebrated, yet engaging, even resisting and challenging the powers, pains, economics around us.

It takes a community to translate the gospel for a culture.

Words are not enough. It is important to recognize that it is our constant temptation to separate a word from its way of life, make it into a concept, by which we can rally people around it. We believe in the Bible! Morality! Justice! Soon this word becomes an object of ideology by which we make war with people. The only way to break out of this antagonism is to return the word to its context in everyday life and use it to navigate life “with” people. As people see us live the Bible, moral life and justice in all the streams of our lives, the challenge and goodness of the salvation in Christ becomes visible. They ask us to give an account of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). We learn how to speak, communicate and invite in the language/experience and culture of those around us. It is the church “among” the cultures as Mission versus the church “apart” from or the church “of” the cultures. It seems this dynamic is especially important to understand as we engage in mission in post Christendom settings.

So contextual theology is important. In the past the church in North America could rely on everybody speaking the same language. We could reasonably assume the Story of God in Christ was part of the scripts of culture. The church could assume a degree of authority whereby we could speak and be heard about what is true. But, alas, in large parts of N America, that culture is gone. We’ve been thrown into a myriad of developing post Christendom cultures where we must become aware of our contexts, the power, the pains, the economics, the values, the signs of significance at work in the cultures around us. 

I do a lot of this kind of theological work on this blog. Join me eh? Sign up for the RSS feed that is specific to this blog or (better yet) the feed for all of Missio’s writers. Let’s work on this together!

How we shape communities in context/Mission is part of what we do in D Min in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. A degree for the training of pastors to lead churches into mission. Interested then contact me via my blog or at the Northern site. 


David E. Fitch holds a Ph.D from Northwestern University and is the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary. He also serves as as a pastor in the suburbs of Chicago with the Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois and previously as the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois. Besides teaching and pastoring, he is the cofounder of Missio Alliance and is an author of numerous books including Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shap The church for Mission, The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies, and his latest book What Is The Church: And Why Does It Exist?

* This blog post was originally published by Missio Alliance on January 21, 2016.

Church Planting: A Calling

By Gailyn Van Rheenen

By experience, I have learned that becoming a church planting missionary is more than an occupation but a calling of God into His mission. When called by God, Christians know their calling, are defined by it and are more likely to focus on the spiritual and cultural preparation and training required for effectiveness, especially in a cross-cultural context.  

Mission without calling very typically leads to despair, discouragement, and failure, a reality I have experienced throughout the years in the teaching and training of missionaries.   

Church planting is more than an occupation but a calling and mission from God in His service!

The great illustrations for understanding God’s call and mission are Jesus who became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14) and Paul and his co-workers who became “all things to all men . . . for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor, 9:22-23).  

Jesus, knowing that He had come from the father to not only show us a way to live but also die for us, struggled in the flesh praying to the Father, saying, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit” (Luke 23:46). This has led to the pertinent question, “How do we grow in maturity to model and reflect this Jesus Way?”

How do we grow in maturity to model and reflect the Jesus Way?

Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, frequently began his letters to the churches with a focus on prayer. He began his letter to the Colossians, for example, by giving thanks to God for his work in the church and for their love and faith in Jesus Christ and for their love for all of God’s people (Col 1:3-6). This has led me to a second pertinent question, “How do we, likewise, grow to reflect the apostolic nature of Jesus by seeking to humanly imitate his divine life as illustrated by the early apostles?”

As a church planter, I continually asked the questions “What would Jesus do? How would He minister in this context?” and “How would the Apostle Paul minister in this context?”  

Jesus and Paul became my missional role models as I ministered among the Kipsigis of Kenya, taught Missions and Bible at Abilene Christian University, and mentored and equipped missionaries through Mission Alive.   

The Calling 

For example, I was called to be a missionary during an age when there were few missionaries in the churches of my religious heritage. I was about eight years of age when I got up the courage to talk with my older sister Karen about this vision. At that point, I had never met a missionary or had much contact with anyone with a passion for beginning communities of faith with an allegiance to God and His message. We lived on an Iowa farm where we worked the fields planting corn and raising pigs for sale and herding a few cows. 

My parents had a life-changing experience during this time. They became dissatisfied with the church of our religious heritage and came into a small church in Iowa. Church became central to life even though we had to drive a distance to get to church services and events.

The centrality of the church in our family life was apparent as a child. I remember my father, Chalmer Van Rheenen, praying on his knees late at night when I should have been asleep. He was an Iowa farmer with an exceptional work ethic. As one of his sons, I was expected to work in the barns and the fields after school and on the weekends with my father and my older brother. I especially remember cleaning out the pig barns by scooping up the pig manure and throwing it to a manure spreader, which would then be broadcast onto the fields as fertilizer in preparation for planting corn and other crops. This family discipline on the Iowa farm formed a work ethic within us as children.   

Like all families, we had many struggles. At times mother was controlling. I had an older brother of great abilities, wondered how I could measure up to him and was frequently exasperated by his brotherly way of putting me down. I remember feeling at various times that I had to measure up to him and his significant abilities despite my inabilities. In later years I learned that I had a form of dyslexia and thus over the years had to discipline myself to cope in many ways.  

In the midst of all this, I began hearing the calling of that God early in life to be a missionary like the apostle Paul. 

It was near Christmas when our mom and dad received an invitation to a gospel meeting. They choose to go to the meeting rather than the candle lighting Christmas service at the Reformed church. They were drawn by how preaching was from scripture and the way of salvation and forms of worship were stated very clearly. After their baptism, they couldn’t get enough of the scriptures. We, as children, have special memories of our parents, especially Dad, sitting on a kitchen chair reading for hours.  They found what they discerned, according to their understanding at that time, a church that followed the “patterns and examples” of the early Christian church.  

In the summer of 1959, when I was 13 years of age, our family traveled south to look at Christian colleges where we children might study. Mom and Dad only had grade school education and they wanted more for us. We first visited Lipscomb University in Nashville, then Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.  In Searcy, we heard about a small Christian school called Crowley’s Ridge Academy in Paragould in the northeastern corner of the state and decided to visit there on our way back to Iowa.  

Upon arriving in Paragould and contacting Emmitt Smith, the founder and President of this small school, we were invited to say in this home for a few days to get to know the area. Our parents were greatly impressed with Crowley’s Ridge Academy. It was the community of loving Christians that they had always desired. They perceived that this might be a new home to replace being estranged from their Dutch roots because they had left the Dutch Reformed tradition, Because of their Churches of Christ (CofC) teaching, they sounded righteous to family and that separated them from the blood family. The church family became family, but that was rocky, too. I sometimes wonder if moving to Arkansas was a “begin again” for them. 

The Equipping

While God’s calling to mission occurred early in life and equipping in a preliminary sense was within the family and the local churches we attended. Focused equipping occurred first a Harding University on an undergraduate level in Bible and then at Abilene Christian University in graduate studies in Missions. 

Harding University became a place of formation giving me an imagination and understanding of ministry. I also grew in leadership by developing and leading weekend campaigns working with local churches to reach out to neighbors, friends, and relatives, and serving as Vice-President of the student association during my senior year. I was inspired by the influences of teachers like Dr. Jerry Jones and Jimmy Allen. 

Abilene Christian University became a place of transformation. I grew beyond the sectarian, topical theology of my church heritage by learning to read the Bible narratively within its historical context. That is, reading the Bible as the Story of God through Israel, who was to be a light to the nations in the Old Testament, Christ in the Gospels describing how God in His Son Christ became flesh and dwelled among us, and the Holy Spirit indwelling the early Christian church leading them to become the light of God to the nations. I was formed by Dr. George Gurganus, the first professor of Missions in the CofC heritage at that time.  Fuller Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School became contexts for missiological preparation. Paradoxically I was never an in-residence student in either of these seminaries but moved from a Masters in Missions to a Doctor of Missiology degree by taking intensive short courses. During these years of study, I served for two years as a campus minister at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and fourteen years as a church planting missionary among the Bakonjo of Uganda (one year) and the Kipsigis of Kenya (13 years). Studying while serving as a missionary enabled me to be on mission with God in the midst of missiological practice. 

Studying while serving as a missionary enabled me to be on mission with God in the midst of missiological practice.

As I grew as a missionary, I discerned the significance of missions training. Missionaries without significant training are seldom able to perceive cultural differences but merely interpret local realities within their own cultural perspective. They fail to realize the extent of cultural diversity—how learning local languages help understand indigenous customs. Our first African language was the trade language Swahili, which enabled us to talk with people from various tribes and ethnic groups. As we began working among the Kipsigis people, it became apparent that we had to learn the local language in order to understand the indigenous culture. To learn a language is to learn a culture.  

My prayer in writing this is that these experiences might encourage you to likewise learn from multiple sources while serving in the mission of God.  


Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen served as a church-planting missionary in East Africa for 14 years, taught Missions and Bible at Abilene Christian University for 18 years, and served as the founder and executive director of Mission Alive. He is the author of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Zondervan); Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (William Carey Library); and The Changing Face of World Missions (Baker Academic; authored with Michael Pocock and Doug McConnell).

Campus Missions: New Wine for New Wineskins

My regular job, if you will, is serving as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, Delaware. Serving in ministry with me is our campus minister, Casey Coston, and our worship & community outreach minister, Nicole Da Cunha.

The city of Newark is located in New Castle County, which has a population of just over 500,000 and is part of the vast Philadelphia metro area, Newark is also home to the University of Delaware Blue Hens, which has a student enrollment of nearly 25,000. So a significant ministry for the Newark Church is sponsoring the Blue Hens for Christ campus mission and Reflect Campus Missions, which seeks to call, train, and send out new campus ministers to serve and even plant new campus missions on university and college campuses in North America.

I asked Casey to share a little about what his campus mission work is like and here is what he had to say:

I am excited to share how I’ve seen God at work in the past year and how Mission Alive played a big part in that. It’s a story that took over 6 months to develop and it’s still just getting started. But first, here’s a quick review. We have a great way to reach international students by teaching English using the Bible. They have a felt need to improve their English and many of them agree to use the Bible to help them with their English. Along the way, friendship and conversation about the Bible can lead to exciting spiritual things. But I was looking for some way to connect with American students in a meaningful way as well (though international students are connecting with us this way as well). Early last fall, Steve Schaffer at Mission Alive coached me for an hour and helped me discern that we should offer a mental health support group as a way to meet another felt need on campus. I was excited and it seemed like the Spirit was guiding us in this direction. We started a group in our ministry and we started another group in partnership with a non-profit called Sean’s House that is also focused on mental health. Their building is just off campus on West Main Street and that’s where we met people most of this past year. I worked with the director to figure out when to offer the group. It took some time to get started so we didn’t actually have our first group until November. We posted on social media and I prayed. I had no idea who might show up. I think 3 students showed up the first time. I was ecstatic and thanked God. Maybe you would have hoped for more people but this is part of our mission to “focus on a few” just like Jesus did. We quickly ran into Thanksgiving and the long Christmas break so we didn’t get a lot of traction but it was a good test run for us. Then we started back up in February and went to the end of May.  

In our ministry, Rusty Jordan (Director of Campus Planting, Reflect Campus Missions) has also encouraged us to guide conversations from casual to meaningful to spiritual to biblical. Sometimes you can go from casual to spiritual in one conversation.  Sometimes it can take months to move the conversation deeper. The neat thing about our support groups is that you can get into meaningful conversations very fast but then it can take time discerning how to take the conversations deeper. There is one student I want to focus on who came that first time…we will call her Mary.  She shared early on that she was trying to reconnect with her faith. I was able to ask her about that and have a good conversation. I was able to let her know that I was praying for her about some of the things she was sharing in the group. There was even one time where she was the only one at the support group and at the end, I asked if I could pray for her right there and she said yes! As we got into the spring semester, I invited her to waffle night, Blue Hens for Christ (BHC), and some other special events but she was busy with school and her schedule didn’t really allow her much time. It would have been tempting to give up on ever connecting her with BHC. Then one of our elders, Richard Duzan, mentioned getting Nicole Da Cunha, our worship and community outreach minister, to help me at Sean’s House since most of those coming were female students. Nicole and her husband Tony worked with Rusty in BHC for a season. Nicole and Mary connected very well and they started texting and meeting together outside of the support group. They’ve been able to have some important spiritual conversations. Now in typical campus ministry, things tend to shut down in the summer but we took one week off and decided to keep our dinner and discussions going because most of our students would still be around. At the very first summer gathering in early June, Mary showed up! And she has come three straight weeks and is now staying late and making friends with others in BHC. This is what I dreamed and prayed might happen when we started the support group. It takes a lot of patience and prayer and relationship building, but it is organic and Spirit-led and so exciting to witness.

I applaud Casey for the innovative approach to campus missions as well as the help he received from Mission Alive. Reading what Casey has said coupled with my increasing awareness of campus missions, has me thinking about the future of campus missions and church planting too.

Just as there is a need for new innovative churches, there’s also a need for more innovative campus ministries that can engage both American and International students. We need churches that have the capacity to allow for a new wine to be poured into new wineskins and one way of meeting this need could happen by planting both new churches and new campus ministries in tandem with each other. This thought kept reoccurring with me as I was meeting with other campus ministers at the regional Campus for Christ gathering, held in College Park, MD near the University of Maryland (see picture above). So, for example, what if a church planter and campus missions planter moved to College Park, MD, just outside of Washington D.C., where there are 40,000 students enrolled in the University of Maryland.

Think about it, dream about it, and imagine what can be by the power of God at work in us through his Spirit for the namesake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.


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.

I Don’t Care

“What will your church look like in 5 years?”…”Who cares”. 

This question is often asked in church-planting circles: “What will your church look like in 5 years?”. It is a question that helps us plan for the future. It compels us to get a picture in our minds of where we want our church to be at a certain point down the road. It leads us to identify definitive steps to take in order to get where we want to go. But my experience is that this question also invites us to think about church planting the way the typical business owner thinks about business.

The vast majority of businesses today start, or “launch” as we say in church planting, out of self-interest. “This business will help us make money.” “This business could really take off”. “This is a business we would like to run.” These questions are obviously very self-interested. They have to do with the business and its personal survival in a sea of other businesses. Rarely if ever do I hear a business owner ask, “Does my community really need the sort of business I would like to start?”, or,  “How can this sort of business bring blessing to my community?”, or, “Who can I gainfully employ who would get on board with offering this much-needed product (or service) to our community?” These questions are rarely asked in the working world, but business owners will often ask, “What will my business look like in 5 years?”- the same thing church-planters ask.

A better question for church-planters to ask; a question more in line with the heart of Christ, is not, “What will my church look like in 5 years?” but, “What will my city look like in 5 years because of the church?” You see, the problem with the world of business today is that nearly every business functions from a personal-survival platform; “How can we personally survive among so many other businesses?” “What’s our competitive advantage?” “How can we get customers to buy from us instead of from them?” Business owners are concerned with personal survival, not the welfare of their community. In the end, this amounts to nothing more than Economic Darwinism- everyone out for their own survival where the stronger businesses out-sell the weaker ones, casting them to extinction.

It is my conviction that churches, especially new churches, must not fall into the trap of Darwinian personal survival. Who cares what your church will look like in 5 years; you barely have any control over that anyway. What you should be concerned about is what the landscape of your city will look like in 5 years because of the church you will plant. This question will lead you to work for the welfare and salvation of your city and not for your own congregation’s personal survival. This question will lead you to start ministries that will be most beneficial to your community, not simply those that have had good success elsewhere. This question will serve as accountability for your own heart so that you do not drift into the selfishness of personal survival as businesses are prone to do.

In our congregation here in Laconia, NH, we keep this external-city-focus by regularly communicating at our weekly worship gathering our vision, not for our church, but for our city: “Longing to see Laconia, NH so alive with the Gospel of Jesus that our schools, our businesses, our families and our churches radiate His love and truth into our region and beyond.” In fact, at Water’s Edge, we don’t even have a vision for our church- the vision for our city is the vision for our church. May the Lord always lead us to forget about ourselves and the survival of our churches and concern ourselves only with the welfare of our cities, physical and spiritual.



Shaun Dutile and his wife Marci have been married for 21 years. They live in Laconia, NH with their 5 children ages 5yrs to 1&yrs. Shaun performed his undergraduate work at Harding university in Business Management and Vocational Ministry. Shaun and Marci graduated Harding in 2004 and moved to North Brunswick, NJ with a team of 4 other couples from Harding to plant the Brunswick Church of Christ. In their 10 years in NJ God graciously stretched them, refined them and effectively prepared them for their current work in Laconia, NH. At the age of 26 Shaun began his Master’s work in Marriage and Family Therapy from Liberty University, changing his degree in 2010 to an MA in Professional Counseling. Shaun currently serves as the Minister for Water’s Edge- A Church of Christ, a congregation he and Marci planted upon moving to NH in 2015. In addition to shepherding the Water’s Edge Church, Shaun runs a marriage and family counseling practice in Laconia, is the NH State Rep for Celebrate Recovery (a Christ-centered recovery program), and is also the Chaplain for the Gilford Police Department, Gilford, NH.

Slow Discipleship

We added a puppy to the family yesterday. The family, especially the kids, was really excited about this. But, as you might imagine, the kids underestimated their excitement about how much they would need to pitch in to help train the puppy and take her outside! 

This reminds me of the slow work of discipleship. The great joy we experience over someone who begins to turn towards Jesus is tempered by a period of high activity, energy, and investment from the disciple-maker towards the disciple. But it’s all worth it when a disciple grows in faith and even becomes a disciple-maker herself!

I had a breakthrough conversation last week with Aaron (name changed), my neighbor across the street. I had helped a homeless couple with shelter and food, which led me to want to meet more folks who were homeless. So I bought some loaves of bread, lunch meat and cheese, and a case of water and went down to the park to look for homeless people whom I could invite to have lunch with me. 

When Aaron found out, he “warned” me (his word) about not giving money to homeless people because they use it for drugs and alcohol. I told him I had a strict policy of not giving money in those circumstances, but I did want to share lunch with them if possible. (I didn’t find any folks to eat with that day, but I’ve decided to make a weekly visit to the park with lunch supplies.)

Aaron’s eyes took on a weird look and he asked why I would want to do that. He wasn’t critical; he was almost compassionate. I could tell, behind his question, that he was struggling to understand why someone like me would care about someone like “them.” So I shared with him one of my core values, that there is no us/them mentality, that I’m trying to live according to the values and priorities of Jesus as I read them in the Gospels, and that anybody can pick up the Gospels, read them, and try to follow Jesus. We had a very good and engaging conversation.

Aaron would not identify as a follower of Jesus. And yet, in the time that we’ve known them, both he and his wife, Susan, have reduced the amount that they swear, Aaron has drastically reduced the amount of beer he drinks (going from, on some days, a dozen beers per day to, on many days now, not even one), and they have shown tremendous hospitality towards us. If we look at them through the Conversation Quadrant, they are definitely on the bottom half, moving more deeply into serious, spiritual conversations. 

This is what it looks like to disciple people towards conversion, rather than try to convert first and disciple (hopefully) later. The work is slow, and moves at the pace of the one being discipled, but if we believe that God has led us to people, then who are we to dictate how quickly they must move? If God has prepared people as persons of peace, then we follow Jesus’ instructions to stay with those people, let them serve us, and be messengers of peace in their midst (see Luke 10 and Matthew 10).

Disciple-making in secular culture is slow, difficult work. We believe that movements can occur, but we also believe in reproducing disciples one at a time.


Jeremy Hoover and his family live in Sarnia, Ontario, where Jeremy is a church planting missionary with Love First. He also co-hosts Mission Alive’s Discipleship Conversations Podcast and provides Pastoral Care for Pastors who are struggling with burnout, time management, and relationship and leadership challenges.