The Jesus Way

Way and not the wayJeremiah 6:16-21; John 14:1-14

As most of you know, this spring and summer I was a delegate to two denominational conferences—our United Methodist General Conference, a worldwide gathering in Tampa, and the Western Jurisdiction Conference which took place in San Diego (I know, two terrible places to go for conferences, right?).

While at these conferences, delegates heard disturbing news about the United Methodist Church. Here are some of the numbers:

  • Over the last five years, membership in the UMC in the United States has declined 5.3% (424,000 members)
  • Worship attendance has declined by 8.7% over the last five years (291,600 less on an average Sunday than five years ago)
  • Baptisms and confirmations of children and youth have declined by 21% over the same period. 
  • Only 15% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are considered to be "highly vital," a designation which is marked by:
  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. Multiple small groups and programs for adults, children, and youth
  3. Worship that connects across generations
  4. A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership 

The vast majority (85%) of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. do not meet these criteria for vitality.

The upshot of all this, according to the report, is that in 25 years our denomination will no longer have children and youth in our churches, and in 50 years we will no longer exist if the current trends are not reversed. 

That’s some pretty sobering news for the UMC. The General Conferences response to that was to do, well, nothing. Two weeks and $1500 a minute of discussion led to know significant changes or initiatives for changing the church’s focus. The denomination’s logo was plastered over everything from banners to mugs to t-shirts: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But it’s pretty clear that we’ve forgotten how to do that.

I’m pleased to report that our congregation is part of the 15% (some may debate the pastoral leadership part, however). Our average attendance has grown by 20% in the last year. We confirmed 20 youth this spring, and our membership is over 600. Those are good signs that we are bucking the trend. But even with those good numbers, I really believe that congregational “vitality” is less about the numbers than it is about the outcomes.

A few years ago I attended a conference at Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area – one of the biggest churches in the country. They have 21,000 in average attendance each week (we would be a Sunday School class!). By all the metrics they would seem to be wildly successful. A couple of years ago, though, the church’s leadership began to wonder whether their large numbers of people were actually having their lives changed, growing deeper in their relationship with Christ and their love and service toward others.

They engaged in an internal self-study called Reveal which showed that even though large numbers of people attended the church, few reported a significant change in their spiritual attitudes (love for God and others) and spiritual behaviors (evangelism, tithing, etc.).

What they discovered, however, is that there is really a spiritual continuum along which people tend to move, and the deeper one grows in relationship to Christ the more their attitudes and behaviors change to reflect Christ. That makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: no one moves along that continuum unless they are invited to do so, and no one moves along that continuum unless there is a disciplined process to help them get there one step at a time.

The bottom line? Disciples of Jesus aren’t formed by accident or osmosis. You can’t be formed into a disciple of Jesus in just one hour a week, no matter how dynamic the worship service is (and Willow Creek has smoke, lights, and escalators!). Disciples get made because the church makes disciple-making its number one priority. The more disciples that get made, the more the church reflects Christ, and the more the church reflects Christ, the more impact it will have for Christ’s kingdom in their communities.

The irony is that Methodism was born as a disciple-making reform movement in the larger Anglican church, which was dealing with the same complacency and decline that we see in our own denomination. John and Charles Wesley developed and employed an intentional method for making disciples in small groups where people could receive instruction, support, and encouragement for moving deeper in their love for God and their commitment to the way of Christ.

It’s clear, though, that Methodism has lost this way and the only solution to revival is to recapture a laser-like focus on making disciples—disciples who are following, living, and teaching the Jesus way. And, you know, I think Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church can be a catalyst at the forefront of that revival. Over the next several weeks I am going to show you how I think that can happen—a vision that God is laying on my heart and the hearts of others to get back to our core mission of making disciples!

To begin, then, I think it’s important that we establish a framework for understanding what a disciple of Jesus is all about. Jesus established the process when he called his own disciples, gathering them around himself for three years, teaching them, challenging them, encouraging them, correcting them, and demonstrating to them how the power of God would come from God through Jesus to them and then from them to others.

Jesus was and is the Word of God made flesh, as John tells us in chapter 1, and through him we learn what it means to be fully human and fully in relationship with God. Through him we also learn what it means to be a disciple and carry out the mission of God in the world. Through him we learn what God is like and how we might become more like him. Genesis 1, the first book of the Bible, tells us how we were made in the image of God. We tarnished that image through sin. Jesus shows us how we can reclaim that image again and reflect God’s glory to the world.

Jesus invited those first disciples into his life with the simple invitation, “Follow me.” I think it’s interesting that they dropped their nets or got up from the tax collector’s table to follow him without asking at that point, “Where are you going?” It was an invitation to be a disciple who is “on the way” somewhere—to be on a journey.

The whole biblical narrative is a traveling story. God calls Abraham to go on a journey from his homeland to a distant place where God’s promise awaits him. Moses is called to lead his people on a journey from slavery to promise. Israel travels in exile to Babylon, far from home, where God teaches them a new way of living. The Bible is always inviting people to be “on the way” and in Jewish wisdom tradition, the “way” or “path” is the lifestyle of the person who lives under God’s wisdom. Proverbs 2:6-9, for example, talks God’s wisdom “guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones” who will “understand righteousness, justice, and equity, every good path.” Our Old Testament lesson today from Jeremiah taps into this tradition, where true “rest” for the soul is only found by walking on the “ancient path,” the “good way.” To be with God is to be “on the way.”

Of course, there is also another “way.” Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.” God’s way is always contrasted with our way in Scripture. It’s right there in our Old Testament lesson, too, where Jeremiah calls the people to take the good way, God’s way, the ancient path, but the people say, “We will not walk in it.” A key biblical question is always this: Which way will you walk? God’s way or my way?

During my morning devotions I have been reading a wonderful little book by the 20th century missionary E. Stanley Jones, and one of his statements really grabbed me one day on vacation. He wrote,

“All of life becomes a choice between the Way and not-the-way. That applies to individuals and nations—the smallest and the largest. There are no exceptions anywhere.” The way of God vs. our way, which is not-the-way. Indeed, says Jones, God’s way is the way we were made to walk in the beginning. “The Christian way is the natural way—the way we were made to live,” he says. “Sin is unnatural. Yes, it is the customary but not the natural. If it were, we would bloom under it. Do we? On the contrary, sin is sand in the machinery.”

 One of the major problems in our churches is that we’ve comprised the Way with not-the-way. Our churches have bought into the consumerism of the culture, the sexual ethics of the culture. Christians have merged the Jesus way with the Republican way or the Democratic way to the point that the Jesus way often has no correlation to the way outlined in Scripture. It’s no wonder our denomination is in trouble. We’re not on the way.

Jesus leads his disciples on a very specific way that is natural to him and invites them to see it as natural for them, too. He lives it right in front of them, but now, as he departs, they wonder how they will be able to continue to live that way, God’s way. Jesus does not mince his words. There is his way and not-the-way.

That’s when Jesus gives us this famous sentence in John 14:6. “How do we know the way?” Thomas asks. He is asking about geography. Jesus says, “I am the way, and [I] am the truth, and [I] am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is talking about the way of being, the way of God. I am the way to God the Father’s way, I am the way to God’s truth, I am the way to God’s life. If you know me, you will know him. If you follow my way, you will be following his way.

To be a disciple is to be one on the way to the Father through Jesus. Too often Christians have assumed that what Jesus is saying here is about the way to heaven, but the context reveals that it’s much deeper than that. Jesus is revealing to them the way to the very heart of God, a relationship with God that is life-giving to them and, through them, life-giving to others not just in the future, but in the present. You want to know God, to see God, to do the work of God? You must follow the Jesus way. There is no other.

It’s interesting, though, that Jesus doesn’t just say that he is the “way;” he is also the “truth” and the “life.” Len Sweet argues that what Jesus is doing here is giving his disciples a natural progression for continuing on the way: first, belonging (the way), then believing (the truth) and then behaving (the life). This is reflected in the life of Jesus’ first disciples gathered around that table. First, they were invited by Jesus to belong to his traveling entourage, then Jesus taught them the truth about himself and about God’s kingdom, then he sent them out to live his life until his return, being his Body for the world.

Notice that this is a process, a continuum, an intentional movement for making disciples!

Eugene Peterson explains it this way: “The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.” Belief in the Person of Jesus is always tied to acting in the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus without the person of Jesus quickly becomes one philosophy among many, while the person of Jesus without the way of Jesus turns him merely into a religious icon. And yet, this division is what’s happening in the Church today. We have lost the way and the truth that leads to life.

John Wesley would have been appalled at this. His expressed his greatest fear for the church:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wesley’s fear has become realized. It’s going to take a revival to change that.

Wesley was the one who called the early Methodists to live what he called a “practical divinity”—a marriage of piety and compassion, word and service, belief in Jesus with the works of Jesus. Ken Collins, a Wesley scholar, says that Wesley had a “conjunctive theology” that was more both/and than either/or. It’s the same theology of Jesus who never separated faith from action.

My friends, if we want to know the heart of God, if we want to do anything for his kingdom, this is what we need to recapture—to be on the way of discipleship, the way of Christ. We’ll talk a little bit next week about how Wesley did this and how we will be working at it here at TLUMC. The future of our church lies in the DNA of our past—not just our Wesleyan past, but in the very framework Jesus gave his disciples around the table. We’ll talk about that some more next week as we look at the Methodist way of making disciples.

For now, though, the question I want you to be thinking about over the next few weeks is this: Are you on the Jesus way? Are you learning the Jesus truth? Are you living the Jesus life? What drives the rhythm of your life?

We’re going to be giving you some opportunities to reflect on this over the next several weeks. This week you’ll receive a mailing outlining our fall campaign, which is designed to help you take steps on the way to faithful discipleship. The six markers of prayer, Bible reading, worship, witnessing, financial giving, and service aren’t the ends of discipleship, but they are some of the means. When we take Jesus’ invitation to follow seriously, these are the ways we take the steps. I urge you to look that over this week and think about the next steps that Jesus is calling you to take in your life.

This Saturday, Joe and I will be sharing some detail about a vision for TLUMC to become a focused, disciple-making church in the Wesleyan tradition. Want to show you the way that we think Jesus is calling us to be on the way. We’ll meet from 8:00 to noon, maybe not that long, but we want to give you a chance to hear and respond. At least come for breakfast served by UMM! We have a chance to be part of a fresh a movement of God and I hope you are excited about what God is up to here. I’ll also be sharing some of this next Sunday if you’re unable to make it on Saturday.

You know, the name of the first Christian church in the book of Acts was called, “The Way.” That may not be our name, but may it be our passion as Christ’s church here at Tri-Lakes. Let us be a church on the way!






Gideon: Hearing God’s Call

Interview-in-progressJudges 6-7

A lot of people are looking for jobs or career changes in this economy. The whole process is stressful…looking for the right job, checking out the ads, doing the networking. But probably nothing is as stressful as the job interview – having to prove yourself over and over to someone who doesn’t know you at all.

Job interview stress can sometimes make us whacky. I found this list of things put together by some corporate CEOs of things that people actually did in job interviews:

  • A balding guy abruptly excused himself and returned to the office a few minutes later wearing a hairpiece.
  • An applicant came in wearing a Walkman and said that it was no problem to listen to me and music at the same time
  • Another stated that if he were hired he show his loyalty by having the company logo tattooed on his forearm.
  • Another interrupted to phone his therapist for advice on answering specific interview questions.
  • This one takes the cake: An applicant asked who the lovely babe was, pointing to the picture on my desk. When I said it was my wife, he asked if she was home right now and if I’d give him the phone number. I called security.

Job hunting and hiring can be tough!

But what happens when the job comes to you…out of the blue? That’s what we’re going to focus on today as we look at the story of Gideon. Gideon is an Old Testament “Giant” because his story gives us some insight on how God calls people, how God offers jobs to people like us.

One of the persistent questions I get asked is “How do I know what God is calling me to do?” It’s a great question – and one that needs some examination and evaluation. As I read the Gideon story, I see at least 6 ways of knowing that a call is from God (there are probably more). How do you know if God is calling you to do something?

1.  It comes to you when you weren't looking for it (6:1-12).

Gideon is an average guy just trying to eke out an existence, hiding his grain from the marauding Midianites when the angel comes looking for him to give him a mission – in this case a military mission. Gideon is quick to respond that he is not the man for the job (verse 15 – My clan is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the least in my family). He isn’t looking for glory, doesn’t have a Messiah complex.

But that’s the point. God isn’t interested in Gideon’s resume, but in his availability. Time and again in the Bible we see God calling the most unlikely people with poor qualifications, inadequate social skills, and less than stellar communication ability to do his work and lead his people.

If you read the Bible closely you’ll see people constantly telling God that they don’t have the goods. Take Moses, for example, who was scared to death to speak in front of people. Did you know that when people list their greatest fears, “public speaking” is number one? Death is number two! That’s why Jerry Seinfeld says that most people at a funeral would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

But it’s these scared people that God tends to pick for the big jobs – people who were minding their own business when God showed up. They weren’t looking for it, but God is looking for them – for people in whom God’s strength can be shown through their weakness.

There’s a great saying that goes, “God doesn’t always call the qualified, but he always qualifies the called.” That’s so right. God isn’t interested in your resume, but in your availability. In verse 16 God assures Gideon “I will be with you”. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff – your small self, your small abilities, your small vision. Just let me work through you.

When you least expect God can use you, look out.

2. It requires you to take on more responsibility (6:13).

In verse 13, Gideon  complains, “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hands of Midian.”

One of the interesting questions I often get asked is, “If there’s a God, why is there so much suffering in the world? He ought to do something about that.” Well the answer to that is simple. God has done something about it…he made you.

Look at the reply in verse 14: The Lord turned to Gideon and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”

For whatever reason, God has decided that his biggest jobs need the participation of people like you and me. Some say that’s because God is really weak, if there is a God at all. God simply won’t or can’t do it. I think just the opposite – God chooses to use us to change the world because we matter to God. That God calls us is an affirmation of our worth.

But that call also requires action on our part. The Pareto or 80/20  Principle says that in any organization, 80% of the people do the talking while 20% do all the work. When God calls you, it is always to become one of the 20 percenters – to take responsibility for the world around you. To see where God is at work and get on board.

How many times have you said, “Somebody oughta do something about that?” Well, the story of Gideon tells us that more often than not that somebody is you!

3. It is for the benefit of someone else (6:14)

I remember my first chapel in seminary. There I was, a shiny new student, expectant that God was going to bless my socks off in ministry and that everything was going to be great. And then the dean of the chapel stood up to preach, paused a long moment, looked us in the eyes and said to us first-year students: “Men and women, when God calls you into ministry he isn’t doing you any favors.”

Yikes. But it’s true. God does not call us into ministry for our benefit – it is always for the benefit of someone else. Because God chooses the least qualified among us, there’s no room for narcissism…your call is not about you. If God is really calling you, the evidence will be in the impact that call has on other people, serving them, building them up, leading them to God. That call may exact a high cost from you, may even be dangerous (it was for Gideon), and it requires an uncommon faithfulness. But ultimately, we can only realize a call is from God when realize that in following it we won’t become the primary beneficiary.

How is God wanting to use your life, your time, talent, resources, to serve someone else?

4. It moves you out of your comfort zone (6:25-35)

It’s interesting that Gideon’s first task is to tear down the altars of the god Baal, who was worshipped by the peoples of Canaan and, in their faithlessness, by many of the Israelites. God commands Gideon to first get rid of the idols of Baal closest to home – to tear down the Asherah pole (a symbol of fertility), cut it up, and burn it on an altar. Problem is that this is his own father’s property. Gideon obeys God’s command, but does the work at night. The next day, the rest of the family and the people of the town are furious – wanting Gideon’s head. This was a necessary first step, however, in bringing the people back to God. Gideon is called to risk even his own life to make that happen

You can usually tell if a call is from God if it’s something that’s difficult to do. When I served with Randy Jessen in Colorado Springs, he had a way of testing whether what we were doing as a church was really in God’s plan. When we’d set goals he’s always ask us as a staff, “Well, is it scary enough?” In other words, does this take you out of your comfort zone? Is it a seemingly impossible task? Will it upset the status quo? Then it’s probably from God!

5. It passes the "fleece" test (6:36-40)

Gideon wants to confirm that God is really calling him to lead the people. So he asks for a sign. He puts a fleece (sheep skin) on the threshing floor and says, “God if you really want me to do this, make the fleece wet and the ground dry.” Next day, it is. But Gideon still needs more convincing – “OK, now so that I can be really sure – make the fleece dry and the ground wet.” Next day it is!

That seems a bit presumptuous to us. For most of us, signs of God are not so obvious. We’re not really prone to angel visitations or wet fleeces, but I think the operative principle here is that when God calls us, it behooves us to make sure what we’re hearing. How do we do that?

There are a couple of ways that we can “put out a fleece”. We start with Scripture – knowing that if God is calling us the task will be consistent with his Word – and that means the WHOLE word, not just a singular verse. Many horrific things have been done by people because “the Bible said so.” I just finished reading “Under the Banner of Heaven” which is largely about men doing heinous things because “God told them to.” History is full of such proclamations. Gideon recognized, as should we, that receiving a call from God is not to be taken lightly and must be thoroughly investigated!

We need to look deeper. It requires some study on our part to get the whole witness of Scripture. Probably the best guidepost in that is following Jesus’ example, walk in his footsteps…can’t go wrong there.

 I John 4:1-3 says, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…”

It’s incumbent upon us to listen to God’s call, but also recognize that not every nudge we get is from God. We need to “test the spirits” and check them against God’s perfect word in Christ. 

Next, we sometimes get our fleece from the witness of other people. Usually if God is calling us, that call will be affirmed by a variety of others who can sometimes see what we can’t see. They act as a checkpoint for us.

A lot of people ask me to describe when I decided to be a pastor. I didn’t! I  was working as a youth director in a church in Bellefonte, PA – quite happy doing that. Had some opportunities to speak and teach in the church and enjoyed that. One day, the senior and associate pastors pulled me into the office and told me, “We’ve decided that you need to go to seminary. God is calling you and you’re not hearing him.” Over the next months, I had several similar but unrelated conversations with people who said, “When are you going to seminary?” Even though I hadn’t put out the fleece, there it was!

The point is that there are many ways in which God gives us “signs” and marker points on our journey. Asking questions, consulting with people we trust, looking closely at our gifts and priorities are all ways that we can “put out a fleece.”

6. It is something too big for you accomplish on your own (7:1-21)

So now Gideon goes out to do the thing that God has called him to do – to save Israel from the Midianite raiders – whose numbers of camels are “greater than the sand on the seashore” – in other words, there were a lot of them. Gideon assembles an army of about 32,000 – still probably not enough but a sizeable force. And then God tells him – “You have too many.” Too many? Tell the ones who are afraid that they can go home – 22,000 do. Now there are 10,000 left. God says to Gideon – still too many. Take them down to the river. The ones who lap up the water from their hands, keep those. The ones who kneel to drink, send them home. (Probably the ones lapping water from cupped hands demonstrated that they were alert – could drink and still keep a sword in their hands).

That leaves Gideon with 300 men to do the job. Oh, and by the way, they won’t need the swords – you’ll just, at the right time, smash some clay pots, raise torches, blow trumpets and the enemy will be defeated. Not exactly a proven Pentagon-like strategy.

But it works. When Gideon and his men execute the plan, the Midianites are thrown into confusion (psychological warfare) turn on each other and flee. Mission accomplished.

Why do it this way? God tells Gideon in 7:2 it is so that “Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her”. It is God’s power, not Gideon’s or the people’s that will save them.

Gideon’s story, as well as many others in the Bible, tells us that the tasks God calls people to are never something that they can accomplish on their own – it takes the power of God revealed in and through those who are willing. If a task seems overwhelming or impossible, it’s probably from God – and an opportunity for God’s power to work through you. 

If you’re feeling weak or inadequate, know that you are ripe for a call from God!

I love Gideon’s story because it tells us that no matter who we are or where we find ourselves, God can use us, call us, equip us. Each of us has a mission, a calling, a purpose. What’s yours? Maybe it’s as simple as being a Christian example for your kids, maybe it’s righting some injustice in the world, maybe it’s to pour out your life in the service of others, maybe it’s to build resources that further God’s Kingdom…maybe it’s to full-time ministry.

Gideon was called to stand in front of a great evil that was threatening his people. We have seen this week, once again, what evil can do. The theater shootings in Aurora leave us feeling afraid, wanting to hide in our own version of a winepress. But God calls us to face evil with love, to be obedient, and to see where we fit in God’s ultimate victory over that evil. We may feel, like Gideon, that we are the least of people, but it’s those people through whom God does his greatest work.

Oh, by the way…following God’s call is the reason that there is a Bible in nearly every hotel room. The Gideons took their name from the Bible character because of his obedience. The two guys who founded the Gideons, John Nicholson and Samuel Hill met when they were forced to share a hotel room in Wisconsin one night in 1898…read the Bible together…and got a call from God to provide Bibles for travelers. A big job…but we all know about the Gideons!

That’s being available when you least expect it!  I encourage you to listen hard to God. Don’t settle for just doing a job – spend your life in following God’s call! And when you least expect God to use you, that’s when he will!





Bonhoeffer on Cheap Grace

As I traveled to the Western Jurisdiction Conference of the UMC yesterday, I was re-reading once again Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, The Cost of Discipleship. One of the most powerful quotes from the book leaps to mind today as the conference begins:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Africa and missions

We spent this afternoon in Kenya with Pastor Oscar Muriu who is the Lead Pastor at Nairobi Chapel, one of the most innovative and effective disciple-making churches to which I’ve ever been exposed. Today he gave us an overview of how Africa has historically been the cradle of Christianity throughout its history, and how that legacy is emerging even more forcefully today.

The following is a transcript of a very similar talk that Pastor Muriu gave a couple of years ago at a conference, which is essentially what he told us today. I share it for some context and as a starting point for some of the conversations I’m looking forward to having when I get home. Enjoy:

At the end of the last millennium, Christian History, a popular evangelical magazine, listed the 100 most important events in the history of the church over the last 2,000 years. The only mention Africa received in that article involved the British abolition of the slave trade. While the article was informative, it missed one of the most significant events in the life of the Church.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it is estimated that the African church had nine million converts, but by the end of that century the Church had grown to an amazing 360 million converts. This fact alone is a miracle and it is such that today in the 70 million worldwide, Anglican Episcopal communion, there are more Anglican Christians in the single country of Nigeria alone than in the whole of Europe and America put together.

In my own country of Kenya, 80 percent of the population calls itself Christian, while 34 percent profess to know Jesus Christ as their personal savior. This is nearly equal to the whole of the evangelicals in Europe put together. The largest congregations in London, in Zurich, in Kiev and in several gateway cities in Europe are today led by African pastors. There are now more missionaries today being sent out of the two-thirds world than are being sent out of the Western Church today. The same type of astronomical growth is being experienced in Asia and in South America—so much so, that while in 1900, 80 percent of the Christians in the world lived in the West, today over 75 percent of Protestant Christians are found in the non-Western world, and nearly 70 percent of evangelical Christians live in the non-Western world.

Some scholars say Christianity is dying, but this is only because they are looking at Western Christianity and extrapolating Western church trends and have forgotten to look south and to see that Christianity in the South is thriving and growing phenomenally. In our day and age, Christianity can no longer be said to be a Western religion. The center of Christianity has moved south.
Perhaps few areas in the world demonstrate this dramatic shift more forcibly than Africa—an area experiencing the fastest church growth of any region in the world today. The World Church Christian Encyclopedia of 2001estimated that African Christians are increasing at a rate of 23,000 converts per day. That’s about eight and a half million per year, while the church in Europe and North America loses an average estimated 6,000 church members per day. The center of Christianity is in the two-thirds world, and especially in Africa.

Up until now, when the question was asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian? What do Christians believe?” the answer was given by looking to the West, but now because the center of definition is no longer the West, we must define Christianity from the perspective of the two-thirds world. And Christianity in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America looks markedly different from Christianity in Europe and in North America.

For one, Christians in the two-thirds world are largely more conservative than their Western counterparts—a fact already evidenced in Canada in the Episcopal Church on the matter of conducting same-sex marriages, and in North America on the ordination of homosexual priests. Already the tendency has been labeled by Western liberal theologians as the conservativeness of the two-thirds world that is primitive.

Secondly, two-thirds world-ers read the Bible from a different starting point than Christians in the West do. The story is told of a church in Congo that was going through a transition several decades ago—transition from the missionaries who had planted and established this church, into the hands of the African elders who had grown up as a result of the witness of the missionaries. And the elders felt that the church had been in the hands of missionaries for too long. And they longed for the day when they would be given the reins of authority to govern the church. The conflict became so heated between these two communities, that they invited a mediator to come and to settle this dispute between them. The wise mediator listened to those things that were said by the African elders and listened to those things that were said by the missionaries, and determined that they were speaking two different languages. He then invited the two communities to take the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, and to go and study this text and then to come and preach it in church on separate Sundays. He wanted to see whether they would be able to handle the scriptures well and, hence, to show their maturity.

Well, the missionary community had the opportunity to study the text and to come on Sunday and to preach from it, answering the question, “What is the central message of the story of Joseph?” And their reply or response was that the story of Joseph teaches us that no matter what happens in life, no matter the hardships that come your way, no matter who betrays you, no matter how powerless you become, if you remain faithful to the Lord, he will raise you up and he will watch over you. And yes, they were correct. This is the message of the story of Joseph.

The following week, the African church elders had an opportunity to come and preach from the same text. And they spoke and said that the central message of the story of Joseph is that no matter what happens to you, no matter how high you rise in authority, no matter how deeply your family betrays you, you must never forget your extended family. And yes, this too is the central message of the passage, of the story of Joseph.

You see, our context gives us our interpretive glasses. And the context of theology in the two-thirds world is a context of famine, of poverty, of HIV/AIDS, of disease, of hunger and of oppression. Christian theology is being rewritten from this context. And African interpreters do not ask the same question that Western interpreters do. New theologies of liberation from oppression, of health and healing, of powerlessness, of survival, of suffering and of hope, will take center stage as the concerns of the two-thirds world find increasing expression. The tendency, however, might be for the Western theologians to dismiss African theology as shallow.

Thirdly, and as a result, our homegrown faith in the South is marked by a more charismatic flavor as compared to the West: prophetic pronouncements against the principalities and powers (whether they be governmental or demonic), maximal participation in prayer and worship, faith healing and intense search for self-worth, an embrace of God’s promise of wealth and material blessing, as well as literal interpretations and applications of the Word of God. The tendency might be to dismiss African Christianity as emotionalism with little substance.

Fourth, the focal point of Western missions in the last century was the unreached people groups of the world and the 10/40 Muslim window. But the focal point of African missions is different. Africa is more concerned with going back to its old colonial masters—going back to Britain, and to Belgium, and to Portugal, and to Spain and to France—and with colonizing the colonization of secularized centers of economic power like America and Canada, than it is with the unreached people groups of the world or the 10/40 window.

My own church has a vision to plant 300 new churches by the year 2020. Thirty of these are to be off the continent of Africa in the gateway cities of the world like Sydney, London, New York, Washington and Los Angeles. But if mission agendas are rewritten by the majority church, the focus of missions will change. And what we call ‘reverse missions’ will take center stage. The tendency might be for the church in the West to dismiss Africa’s missionary effort as misdirected and wasteful.

In addition, it used to be that missionaries were sent from the mission center to the world ‘out there’ – the unevangelized mission field around the world. But did you know that America is the third largest mission field in the world today? Leonard Sweet, in his book, Soul Tsunami, says, “There are more pagans in some Western nations than there are in many two-thirds world nations today.” America ranks as the third largest pagan country in the world, following only after India and China.
Furthermore, the growing realization in the two-thirds world – that the Church in the West is on the decline, unable to engage and evangelize its own people, and that 200 years of church history on this continent have not bridged the racial divide – raises uncomfortable questions for the two-thirds world church today. If Western models of Church are not working in the West, and the Church is in decline, then should the Church in the two-thirds world copy the models of the West, or embrace Western theology? If we do, will we not end up in the same problem? Could it be that to drink from the cup of Western theology is to drink from a poisoned chalice?

This is a changing world in which you must go out in missions. Of necessity, because our world is changing, our models for mission must change. The mission industry of the last 200 years was hugely successful. And the phenomenal growth of the Church in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America bows in honor of the Western Church that gave it birth. We who come from Africa will always be eternally grateful to your forefathers who sent out their very best, their own sons and daughters, and resourced them to bring the Gospel to us in the two-thirds world.

But the world has changed. And the church in the two-thirds world is alive and robust. And the Spirit of God is blowing in a new direction. How will this change the way the Western church conceptualizes missions today? As you today sense a call of God into missions, what is he calling you to? Are Western missionaries needed around the world anymore?
Paul answers that question for us, in I Corinthians 12:14-27. And I read: Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the American church should say, ‘Because I am not African, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the Canadian church should say, ‘Because I am not Asian, I do not belong to the body’, it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were European, where would the sense of joy be? And if the whole body were African, where would the sense of order be?
But in fact, God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The Canadian church cannot say to the Asian church, I don’t need you. And the American church cannot say to the African church, I don’t need you. On the contrary, the Asian parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable. And the African parts that we think are less honorable, should be treated with special honor. And the Latin American parts, that seem unpresentable, are [to be] treated with special modesty.

While the presentable parts, like the big wealthy American church, need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.

We often read I Corinthians 12 as it relates to spiritual gifts within the local church. But I suggest to you that it relates equally to the global church and to global partnerships within the one body of Christ, the worldwide church. So in I Corinthians 12, Paul gives us a new paradigm of partnership. If you come from Africa, the analogy we draw of partnerships is that of relationships. We understand partnerships to be like a marriage. It is for life. It requires a total self-giving. And once it begins, it has no end.
Here in the West, the analogy of partnership is often times a business analogy: two organizations working together. A partnership is goal-focused. It has specific terms of engagement. It has a desired outcome. It is time-limited and has a definite endpoint. But in I Corinthians12, Paul uses a different analogy altogether. The African relational analogy is insufficient in and of itself, and the Western business analogy is inadequate to define what partnerships must be in the Church of Jesus Christ. Instead, Paul calls us to something deeper and richer and yet more difficult – the paradigm of mission partnerships as the body of Christ, with each organ playing its unique role.

What does Paul’s analogy teach us? Allow me to draw four principles from it.
Firstly, is that the purpose of maturity is not independence, but interdependence. Verse 21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, I don’t need you, and the head cannot say to the feet, I don’t need you.” The liver never says to itself, I am all grown up now and I can cut loose from the body because I don’t need the lungs anymore and I don’t need the heart anymore. Any body that functions in that way is a sign of sickness and impeding death. The mature healthy body consists of many different organs all working in harmony, all interdependent on one another for the well-being of the whole body. The liver, in its fullest state of maturity will always be dependent on the rest of the body. And such dependence is not bad or wrong. And a mature organ does not eventually become independent.
So, too, it is in the Church of Jesus Christ. When the local Church or the national Church or the continental Church is mature, it will be interdependent, not independent. When the African church is mature, it cannot stand apart, brush off the North American church and say, “We no longer need you now, we are independent now, thank you very much.” This would not be the body of Christ. Our ultimate goal is interdependence, not independence.

So here is a question for you – the African church knows it desperately needs the American church. But how does a church in North America need the African Church? How does a church in Canada need the Asian Church? I have spoken with pastors on this continent who cannot answer that question. They cannot imagine why the Church in North America would ever need the African Church: “What does Africa have to give? You are so poor. You have so little. You have no technology. What in the world could the African church ever give to the church in North America?” My dear friends, this is not the body of Jesus Christ.
But secondly, every organ in the body gives and takes from other organs in the body. The lungs contribute oxygen to the organs and the kidneys clean out the toxins in the body. The stomach digests energy-giving raw material and passes it on to the heart to circulate. Every part gives to the other and every part receives from the others. This is what we call reciprocity. The old model of missions in the last century was sometimes caricatured as “From the West to the rest.” Missions under this model was a one-way traffic—us going to them—but not so in the body of Jesus Christ. As we develop partnerships between the western Church and the two-thirds world church, such partnerships must work hard at developing and enabling reciprocity. Every time the West sends out a missionary to Asia, it should work just as hard to bring one back to the Americas.
Mission organizations need to retool and re-strategize themselves not just to send out missionaries, but to enable the budding missionary movement in the two-thirds world church and to facilitate “reverse missions,” bringing in Africans, and Asians and Latin Americans into Canada, and Europe and North America. When you send out short-term teams over to Latin America, work equally hard to bring in short term teams the following year from Latin America, that they may come into your context and that they may enrich your faith. Do not allow missions to be one-sided. Build in reciprocity, for this is the nature of the body of Christ.
But the converse is also true. There is such a thing as unhealthy dependence. No part of the body only ever receives and receives and receives and never gives anything back. That would be unhealthy dependence. Each part contributes. A lot has been said about unhealthy dependence in missions today. But the key to unhealthy dependence is not to cut off support, but to build up reciprocity. After all, it may well be that the African church will always be dependent on the North American church, for the liver will always be dependent on the lungs. This will never change. And it may well be that God in his wisdom has ordained that the relationship of the two-thirds world Church with the western Church will always be a relationship of dependence upon you for the gifts that God has given you. But no part only ever receives and never gives back. The answer from unhealthy dependency is to move towards reciprocity within the body.

Thirdly, very few of us live with any awareness of our pituitary gland. In case you don’t know what it is, it’s a small gland that lies in your cranium under the brain and it is about the size of a pea, a green pea. But it is an organ that exerts a huge influence on the body as it gives out, secretes out, maybe ten to 12 different essential hormones that the body needs to operate well. It is therefore called the master endocrine gland in the body: small, seemingly insignificant, and yet vital.
As Paul says in verse 22, “The parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable should be treated with special honor, while the presentable parts need no special treatment.” First impressions are deceptive. Those parts of the church that seem unimpressive in their structures, and their numbers and their theology might in fact be the most vital parts of the body.
What this means is that we must always, therefore, approach each other and especially those who seem small, and fragile, and unrefined and underdeveloped. We must approach them with an attitude of humility and mutual respect as we recognize that they too have a vital role within the body of Jesus Christ. No part of the body is dispensable and useless, and equally, no part is indispensable. All contribute to the well-being of the body. And therefore, the sometimes patronizing cultural arrogance that seems to say, “Our way is the only way and the right way” is not the attitude of the body of Christ.

And then finally—and this draws to our last point—God has given greater honor to the parts that seem to lack it. We must always take up, therefore, the position or the posture of learning and discovery as we approach other parts of the worldwide Church that are unlike us. If you take away nothing today from this message that I bring, take away at least this one thing: you must always enter another culture with the posture of learning. Why do you think Jesus lived in Palestine for 30 years and never said anything? Listen and learn before you speak.

If there is anything I admire about North America, it is your innovativeness. I love, in coming over to your continent, to take a visit to Wal-Mart or to Myers or one of these big stores and I walk along the aisles and I look at the products that are being set out for sale. And I pick them up and I ask myself the question. “What is this, and why was it ever even created?” You see, one of the gifts that North Americans have is the ability to solve problems. And as I hold up these different things in the stores, I say, “Ah, I think I know what it is and I can see what problem it solves.”

One of the great things about your educational system here is that when you are going through the educational system, and especially in university, one of the things they work hard to teach you is to solve problems. When your children are young and in school, they are actually graded positively when they respond in class and they share what they think and they are encouraged to give expression to the things that are going on in their minds.
Great educational system, and if there are two qualities that mark North Americans, it is your ability to solve problems, and your assertiveness. You are quick to speak your mind. But your greatest blessing may be your greatest curse. Because when you come to Africa, you want to fix Africa. Well, you can’t fix Africa. You must learn to come as listeners and as learners. I often say to American missionaries on the continent of Africa, “When we go into this meeting, please do not say anything. You see, the reason is that you come from a dominant culture. And when the American speaks, the conversation is over. So do not say anything. Instead, listen and learn.”
Four things, then, that I say:
The world has changed. The center of Christianity has moved to the southern hemisphere. Our definition of what it means to be Christian is going to be increasingly defined from the two-thirds world. And our paradigm of missions must of necessity, therefore, change.
You, Urbana, are the next generation of missionaries. Does the church in the southern hemisphere still need Western missionaries? The answer is a resounding yes. We still need you. And we will always need you, because our goal is not independence—no matter how big we grow or how mature we become—our goal is not independence. Our goal is interdependence, for this is the body of Christ.

But as you come, come as a new-paradigm missionary. Come as a people who seek to develop bridges of healthy interdependence. Come as a people who build reciprocity into the task of missions. Come as a people who approach the cultures of the world with respect and with humility. Come as a people who are learners and not cowboys. For this century must be the century of genuine partnerships and nothing else.

Africa and missions

Jonah: St. Schadenfreude


Photo credit – Mark Retzloff.

Well, we have been enjoying our Vacation Bible School this week and the theme “Operation Overboard.” As I was thinking about that, one biblical story certainly came to mind—perhaps the original “Operation Overboard” in the story of Jonah.

Jonah, of course, is a well-known sea story. A quick summary: Jonah is a prophet called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria (remember we talked about Nineveh last week – the capital of a violent and powerful empire, the enemy of Israel). Jonah was to go and proclaim God’s wrath on the city and call for its repentance.

But Jonah has other ideas and instead of traveling by land to Nineveh (the only way you can get there from Israel) he catches a ship to Tarshish, going in the other direction.

Well, a storm comes up and the sailors fret about who has angered their gods to cause the storm, so they cast lots to see who the guilty party is and, of course, the lot fell to Jonah. Jonah knows he’s the problem, having run out on God, so he tells the sailors to cast him into the sea whereupon Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (a whale), spends three days in its belly, and then gets spit out on dry land going toward Nineveh. God wasn’t taking no for an answer, clearly.

A lot of people come up with questions about Jonah. Like, is this story really historically true? Well, there is a story from 1891 about a British whaler named James Bartley who fell into the mouth of a sperm whale that was attacking his ship, but survived in the whale’s body for 15 hours until the whale was got and gutted by his shipmates. This story, however, is considered by most historians to be a sea story with very little basis in fact. Scientists do know, however, that a person could fit into a large whale’s stomach, so it may be possible (Mythbusters, anyone?)

But the swallowing of Jonah isn’t really the key part of this story, though some think it is.

It’s like the teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.

The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.

The little girl said, 'When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah'.

The teacher asked, 'What if Jonah went to hell?'

The little girl replied, 'Then you ask him'.

The story of Jonah, however, illustrates a much bigger point. When you read Jonah closely, you begin to realize that the real crux of the story, the reason that Jonah gets on a ship instead of heading to Nineveh, isn’t because he’s afraid of dying there, it’s because he’s afraid that his message might be successful!

Imagine Jonah emerging from the whale’s belly: bleached white from the stomach acid, clothes mostly burned off, seaweed wrapped around his head. He grudgingly goes to Nineveh and walks across it for three days, but his message is only this: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Not exactly a scintillating sermon.

I mean, you can’t be much less enthusiastic than that. Where’s the detail, the reasoning, the long poetic explanations of the other prophets? Seems like Jonah, despite his rescue from the deep, is doing everything he can to fail, sabotaging the mission.

Why? He doesn’t want Nineveh to repent! Well, remember the history, the description of what Assyrian Ninevites have done. They are ancient terrorists. Jonah doesn’t want them saved, he wants them destroyed and the threat removed. He wants God to smoke them. He doesn’t want dialogue, he wants destruction! So he does as little as possible to at least give the appearance that he’s doing God’s work and then leaves the city, wanting to get a front row seat for God’s judgment on his enemies.

But lo and behold, the Ninevites get it. Even Jonah’s poor preaching is effective! They repent, turn to God, and God spares them.

Now, as a preacher, I wonder about this. Sometimes when I am least prepared, it’s then that the sermon is the most effective. But whether your preaching is stellar or stupid, you hope that people will respond. But not Jonah.

Listen again to what he says to God. Instead of being happy because of his effectiveness, Jonah is angry (beginning of chapter 4): 4: 1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Jonah’s mad because God offers grace to his enemies!

This reminds me of a word that is becoming more in vogue these days. It’s a German word, and German words sometimes capture larger concepts.  It’s Schadenfreude – defined as pleasure at someone else’s downfall. Jonah has schadenfreude in spades.

He has it so much that as he sits outside the city and pouts, he’s completely furious at God and waits in vain for the city to go up in an apocalyptic cataclysm. He sits so long that God, in his grace, gives him a shade bush. Jonah is happy for the bush, but still not happy about Nineveh not being in flames. God sends a worm to kill the bush, and then God sends the wind and the heat, but Jonah still isn’t moved.

Now, look at the next exchange (4:9): God says, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah says, “Yup, angry enough to die!” That’s pretty angry.

You know I think this is one of the most evocative stories in Scripture because it speaks to us right where we live. Just flip on the radio, TV, internet, newspaper, and you see this kind of anger all over the place. Blogs and twitter pages spew all sorts of vitriol about people and politics. Caustic talk show hosts rile up people with their demonizing of those who don’t agree with them. People who claim to be Christians post some of the nastiest invectives on social media about people and politicians. Anger is the first response of most people to any issue that catches them sideways. The more media we use, the more anger we see. It’s bad and it’s getting worse, particularly as the election campaign heats up. So what’s going on here?

Well, it’s Schadenfreude. Columnist George Will has even said that schadenfreude is the new 8th deadly sin. It’s become a national pastime.

Jonah is its patron saint. See, this isn’t so much a big fish story as it is a cautionary tale. When we’re caught in schadenfreude, we’ll never see the purposes of God for the whole world—a world that includes our enemies.

Look at what God says to Jonah, whose angry about Nineveh, angry about the bush, angry about everything (4:10): “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being at night and perished at night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

That’s how the book of Jonah ends, that question hanging there.

You know, I wonder if God isn’t asking us the same question. “Why should I not be concerned with (insert name of people you disagree with here)?”

Turns out Jonah is really a story about grace—God’s unmerited mercy and favor. We preach grace, we teach grace, but do we offer grace? Do we believe that everyone really is a child of God and that God cares for them even when we disagree? Can we quit pouting and spewing for a season and actually listen to each other?

I’m as guilty of getting the rants as anyone else (usually about theology and sports), but knowing that, we need to be calling one another to change.

And, if we’re going to do that, we’ve got to take some steps, particularly during this politically charged season we are about to enter. Now, I’m usually not a political preacher. I tend to function and think as an independent, but here’s a suggestion. First, I want to challenge you turn off the talk radio, the nasty Facebook posts, the pundit-driven TV no matter which side you’re on. It’s full of Jonahs, be they liberal or conservative, religious or irreligious, who have planted themselves in the shade to comment on the hoped-for destruction of the other side. I would also urge you to think before you post that derogatory cartoon or that one-liner that excoriates someone you don’t agree with, or if you’re reading them constantly then turn that off, too. Think about having a dialogue instead of diatribe. You can choose to stop listening to and reposting the Jonah jabber!

Instead, I want to urge you to start listening to God. My hope is that through our exploration of the Scriptures you’re getting a better picture for the kind of world that God created this to be. Are you catching God’s mission for the redemption of the whole creation, of care for the poor and vulnerable, God’s vision for making the wounded whole and mending the brokenhearted? Can you see that the idea is never that we get God on our side but rather that we get on God’s side?

Oh, it’s so much easier to gravitate toward the poles, the extremes rather than centering ourselves on the Lord. It’s not the blowhards we need to listen to, but the still, small voice of God. Rather than rubbing your hands in glee over the potential downfall of your rivals, why not pray for them instead?

Now, whether the story of Jonah is historical or not, we know that Nineveh eventually did fall in 612BC. I talked about that last week sermon. But what you may not know is that there is still a very small but very faithful community of Assyrian Christians who trace their spiritual lineage back to Jonah. In the midst of dark days and menacing times, God still cares, even for those who might oppose us.

So should we. Christians should be a listening people, a grace-filled people, a people who love as God loves. That’s not easy in an angry, schadenfreude-filled world, but it is our call.

How can you begin this week to be a prophet of peace? Who are the people you can’t stand the most and, as a disciple of Jesus, how will you bless them instead of cursing them? What words can you offer that will build someone up instead of tearing them down?