How Do We Navigate the Tension of Gospel and Culture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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!  

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

Report from the Field: Introducing Wes and Amanda Gunn, Church Planters in Alabama

This week, we want to introduce Wes and Amanda Gunn, church planters in Wetumpka, Alabama.

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Where is your church plant?   

Our plant is in the Redland community, a growing suburb just outside Montgomery, AL.

Why did you choose the place to plant? 

We were residents of this community for 7 years prior to our plant and have a deep love for our community and neighbors.  We noticed many people in our area were not a regular part of any church or were driving long distances.

What is your vision for what you are doing?

We want to create a church family that glorifies God by loving its neighbors and caring for one another.

What made you want to become a church planter specifically?

I think the joy of reaching out to people, sharing Christ with them, the challenge of communicating effectively with people who are a long way from the Lord and are jaded towards anything spiritual; the power of a Christian community coming together to serve God and reach out to the world; the God-pressure on my heart that he wanted me to live and work in the inner city, to the point where doing anything else would have been disobedient.

What tips or advice would you have for someone interested in church planting?

The journey is hard, so individuals have to constantly go back to their calling from God.  Without that, you are likely to throw in the towel at some point.  We have found that we had to completely alter our lifestyle to make room for our neighbors and find ways to serve and love them.  It isn’t just about a Sunday morning worship service, but engaging our community.

If you are interested in church planting, or would like more information, please visit our website at missionalive.org.

 

New Church Study

center-for-progressive-renewal-logo

This is some of the latest, most fresh research on starting churches.  It is a two-year study of 260 ministries related to church planting.

Intro into Study

Final Report

Here are some of the major headings in the blog of findings from the study.

What did you find most interesting about the report?

Report from the Field: Introducing Kevin and Lisa Vance, Church Planters in Canada

This week, we want to introduce Kevin and Lisa Vance, church planters in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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Why did you choose the place to plant?

We didn’t really choose where we were going to plant a church, God chose it for us.  And he chose us to work here.  Seven years ago, we started a children’s outreach in the inner city of Regina; it was small with just six or eight kids that first year.  By the end of the second year, there were 84 kids, and the call to work and live among these people became so strong that we couldn’t ignore it any longer.  Although we were both working at other jobs, and lived in the suburbs, we moved into the inner city, to be incarnational – to live and work among the people.  It is a matter of identification – people here identify differently with those who live among them.  And it has changed us to identify with them too.

Since that children’s outreach, our ministry has matured.  We now have about 100 children and teens in three different outreaches.  The growing edge is in our high school group, where we have 25 students.  These young people are amazing, they serve in so many ways.  They help with the kids outreach and the middle school youth group; they invite their friends; they have developed into a close group that loves to do things together.

What is your vision for what you are doing?

Our vision for this ministry is that it will grow and reach out to many more kids and teens.  Our ministry started at one of the inner city schools; there are three others where we can start outreaches just in the neighborhood.  And more teens are coming to our youth groups each year.  The work is really just beginning.

Beyond the local work, we see church plants happening throughout Canada.  These will be churches that are strong communities of love and support, with a vibrant evangelistic mission to the world.  The work in Regina is a greenhouse, a training ground where leaders are being raised up and church planting teams can be trained and commissioned.

What made you want to become a church planter?

I think the joy of reaching out to people, sharing Christ with them, the challenge of communicating effectively with people who are a long way from the Lord and are jaded towards anything spiritual; the power of a Christian community coming together to serve God and reach out to the world; the God-pressure on my heart that he wanted me to live and work in the inner city, to the point where doing anything else would have been disobedient.

What tips or advice would you have for someone interested in church planting?

Pray often, seek the Lord, follow his leading.  It’s like a roller coaster ride, an adventure.  Join him in his mission, it will be the greatest joy you will ever experience.  Incredible highs, tremendous disappointments, but God’s leading at every moment.

If you are interested in church planting, or would like more information, please visit our website at missionalive.org.

 

Back to Africa

By Gailyn Van Rheenen

It was a transformative trip – for churches among the Kipsigis of southwest Kenya, for national leaders meeting at the Nairobi Great Commission School – and for me personally.  We all felt God’s presence!

The purpose of my trip was to give encouragement; greet families (especially those of loved ones who are ill or have spouses who have passed away); visit as many churches (or clusters of churches) as I was able; and to teach 3-day courses at two Bible schools. I returned from this 2½ week trip tired but empowered.

When we left the Kipsigis area of Kenya, where we ministered for thirteen years, there were 100 churches. Today there are 450! This growth has not simply been numerical. These churches have also grown spiritually – using disciple-making and mission to form new communities and growing existing ones.

Kenya sitting

High points of the trip were visiting elders who helped start the churches, praying over leaders who were seriously ill, and greeting and giving condolences and memories to the families of leaders who had passed away.  A special joy was sharing time with Matayo Matwek, a leader now 101 years of age, weak in body, but strong in spirit and testimony.  Once upon a time he cast vision and encouraged Christians in his home area.  He partnered with other leaders to build a mighty movement of God in his home area. We shared time with Mary, the widow of David Sambu, who was Chairman of the “Committee” (Board) of Siriat Bible School and prayed for her extended family.  I miss David, my African mentor and confidant! Another good friend, Daniel, once worked for me tending my yard and garden and later became the sub-chief in his area.  He now is very sick with cancer. I joined with others praying over him and giving finances to pay medical expenses and help his family.

I thoroughly enjoyed teaching two 3-day seminars, one in the Kipsigis language at the Siriat Bible School in what I call my “home area” of Kenya, and another in English at the Nairobi Great Commission School for major Kenyan leaders in the Mission Textcapital city. In each seminar I applied sections of the 2nd edition of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies to their contexts. I began each section with a teaching time, a time of discussion as a group, followed by discussion and/or prayer in small groups and pairs. The favorite teaching was a parable on “spiritual awakening”—how crawling caterpillars are transformed to become flying butterflies able to both draw nectar and spread pollen.  The most important teaching was “how do people of the kingdom of God make decisions.”  Attentive listening! Laughter! Confession! Dialogue! Prayers! Worship! Transformation!

Kenya churchI visited as many of the churches as I could in the short time that I had.  The churches in Konoin are vibrant for the Lord, focused on evangelism, highly respected by the local community, and are growing locally and in other areas where they send evangelists. They give generously to build facilities for their church gatherings and other events but also meet from house to house.  A local Christian named Jonathan builds these facilities.

Throughout the trip I experienced African hospitality. I stayed in a small two-room house with an outside latrine and shower area on the homestead of my good friends Philip and Irene Chebose. Irene cooked most of my meals, indigenously African and deliciously prepared.  They took care of my every need, even warming up the water for my morning sponge bath.  It was a joy sharing life with this family!  Their son Wycliffe is growing as a preacher and another son Nicholas is learning African sign language so that the Kipgsigis-speaking congregation can connect with the deaf congregation, which also meets in their building—much like the deaf ministry at the Willis Church in Abilene, where I was once served as an elder.

Kenya DavidThroughout the trip I walked and ministered with David Tonui, Principal of the Nairobi Great Commission School, my son in the faith who once lived with us while completing his Masters in Christian Ministry at ACU. I praise God for how David and I worked synergistically during joint presentations, knowing instinctively how and when to speak and when to remain quiet. It was also a joy to share many meals and trips with both David and his wife Eunice.  They illustrate both great hospitality and partnership in the mission of God. They are a rural/urban family—one home in the big city of Nairobi close to the Nairobi Great Commission School where two of their children work and study and another in a village near Siriat Bible School in southwestern Kenya, where the two younger children have been in school.

In many ways I became part of both the Chebose and Tonui families during my stay in Africa—eating, living, and sharing in close proximity.

I was called many years ago to be a missionary in Africa and served there for 14 years. I am energized by being there for a short time! My goal is return every two years to visit the churches and in the process both learn and teach. After each trip I feel that I have received more than I have given.

Our prayer and goal is to continue to grow and develop a similar (though culturally different) church planting and renewal movement in North America through Mission Alive.

Reflections on September 4, 2014

 

Listening to God—From Theology to Practice

Theology is like the rudder of a boatIn Mission Alive we move from Theology to Practice. Theology is listening to God and seeking to do the will of God. It is like the rudder of a boat—setting direction. I can remember how our children, when they were small, loved pedal-boats and always wanted to “drive”. At times they were so intent on pedaling–making the boat move–that the rudder was held in an extreme position, and we went in circles. Realizing their mistake, but still intent on pedaling, they would move the rudder from one extreme to the other so that we zig-zagged across the lake. Without the foundation of theology, church leaders and church planters tend to zig-zag from fad to fad, from one theological perspective and related philosophies of ministry to another. Theology helps center us so that we turn the rudder according to the will of God. It forms and guides the mission of God. Then, paradoxically, our practices of mission begin to inform and shape our theology–a movement from Theology to Practice and then from Practice to Theology.

Cultivate Personal Discipleship

In Mission Alive the first step in training is a two-day, interactive lab called CULTIVATE: Personal Discipleship. The theme is that “what God will do through us he must first do within us.” We would say that the two most important questions are: “What is God saying?” and “What does he desire that we do about it?” In these labs and through coaching and equipping huddles life transformation is sparked for both church planting and renewal.

In Mission Alive we believe in both church renewal and church planting. The impulses of growth, learning, and transformation are similar yet different. These impulses spiritually form searchers to become disciples of Jesus who then go on mission within growing vibrant communities—that meet publicly for teaching, inspiration, and testimony and in smaller groups in neighborhoods and relational networks for mission and community. Discipling-making leads to missions resulting in the development of community. We believe that “the future of the Western Church is . . . a powerful return to Jesus’ heart for making disciples, and multiplying them into missionary leaders” (Jon Tyson, Forward of “Multiplying Missional Leaders”).

There are two types of leaders: those who listen primarily to human voices to guide them forward and those who listen to God’s voice. Mission Alive aims to equip leaders to listen to God’s voice in both church planting and renewal.

The Art of Church Planting

The art of church planting is like three intertwined rings, like Olympic circles, each related to the others. The first circle, disciple-making, is guiding people to become more like Jesus.one ringThe second is mission, summarized by Jesus’ statement: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The words “follow me” designate discipleship, and “I will make you fishers of men” is descriptive of mission.

two rings

The third, community formation, is the result–the outcome–of disciple-making and mission.

three rings

 

Community is inherent in disciple-making and mission. It becomes the arena of nurture, of spiritual maturation.Thus, the art of church planting is learning to make disciples on mission with God, which results in new communities of faith.Disciple-making, mission, community-all three are counter-intuitive to North American society. Our tendency is to emphasize champions over disciples, participation without mission, and attendance with little community.

Mission Training

The process of Mission Training integrates disciple-making, mission, and community through experiential learning processes for the sake of both church renewal and church planting.

Click here to download a Mission Training brochure.

Gailyn Van Rheenen

Mission Alive