Is there hope for apologetics?

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HardwiredI remember attending a debate in college between a Christian and an atheist.

Before it started, the room was abuzz with anticipation, like a stadium before kickoff. After the competitors were introduced to applause and scattered boos, they each proceeded to argue forcefully for their belief system, trading punch lines and other rhetorical jabs. Along the way, they interrupted, misquoted and belittled each other’s views. They called each other names and triumphantly scoffed at how misguided the other person was. In their concluding remarks, both sides claimed to have scored the most points, which was curious given the absence of a scoreboard.

I don’t recall anyone being officially declared the winner that night, or if anyone left the room with different beliefs than when they entered. I wonder if the real losers were members of the audience, or at least those of us who had hoped for better.

Over a decade later, I now find myself as a pastor, a vocation predicated on the existence of God. Yet I still have mixed feelings when the subject of apologetics arises. Perhaps I’ve seen it done poorly too many times. Or maybe I’m turned off by the defensive, almost desperate, salesmanship that belittles opposing viewpoints. Or it could be that I can’t stomach the dissonance between apologists’ typical form (rhetorical flourishes and deductive “proofs” designed to score points for God) and their content (the message of God’s love, grace and hope for the world).

Apparently, my friend Jim Miller, also a pastor, has a few mixed feelings about apologetics too. In the opening chapter of his new book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon), Jim writes:

Most people who believe in anything, religious or otherwise, did not get there by listening to a debate, and meaningful beliefs do not often rest on academic research. That isn’t to suggest faith and reason are unrelated. There are those who think that God gave reason to humanity the way a father gives a BB gun to his son, telling him, “You can play with that thing all you want. Just don’t point it at me.” To the contrary. In fact, the Scriptures say that God intends for people to come looking for him. He isn’t afraid of our reasoning.

If God isn’t afraid of our reasoning, perhaps he intends for us to search without fear of what we might find (Matthew 7:7-11). While I’m generally not a huge fan of apologetics, I look forward to reading the rest of Jim’s book because he understands that a rational, academic case for God’s presence can only take you so far, especially when everyone uses a different scoreboard. A philosophy buff with an eye for the accessible, Jim doesn’t blast his readers with data and argumentation, but instead helps us catch glimpses of God in our everyday assumptions.

So maybe it’s not a stretch to hope for a better, redeemed approach to apologetics. Rather than trying to dissolve the conversation with a litany of airtight rebuttals to all possible objections, we can set our sights on becoming a different kind of people, the kind of faith community with a capacity to offer helpful responses in the context of authentic relationships when the big questions hit.

Who knows? We might even keep the conversation going.

Book review: Creating a Missional Culture

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Creating a Missional CultureWho has time to read every new book with the word “missional” in its title?

Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of how this buzzword gets used, whether to baptize PR strategies aimed at boosting Christianity’s poll numbers or to unveil ecclesiological secrets promising to revolutionize the face of ministry as we know it. Protests of market-driven megachurches and program-driven pragmatism may still have their place—complete with nifty charts contrasting specific straw man A with nebulous ideal B—but many of these critiques spend more energy deconstructing dystopias than supplying a sustainable way forward.

In other words, I don’t buy into all things declared “missional.”

But this book is a gem.

With its unique blend of realism, optimism, practical how-to and theological why-to, JR Woodward’s Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) integrates the very best of recent contributions on mission and culture into a compelling vision of the local church equipped for the world’s sake. This is not another how-to-replicate-my-results-in-your-church book. Nor is it another predictably peevish protest of church caricatures. On the contrary, JR (who follows me on Twitter so I can call him JR, right?) has served up a delectable feast of multi-layered insights gleaned from his years as a church planter and ministry practitioner.

In Part 1, JR defines key terms and details the power of culture dynamics, both in society at large and within the local church. Synthesizing influential thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Jamie Smith, Tim Keller and Andy Crouch, JR describes six elements of the “cultural web” (language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, ethics) as well as five kinds of environments needed for the creation of missional culture (learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, thriving). Citing Suzanne Morse, he introduces the concept of “polycentric leadership,” first as an outworking of Ephesians 4, then as an alternative to both centralized and flat leadership structures.

Part 2 looks at how shifts in media, philosophy, science and religion provoke a shift toward polycentric leadership. JR contends these shifts have “highlighted the vulnerabilities of a hierarchical leadership structure” and therefore, “shared leadership engenders greater trust in those who are cynical to truth and power.” (p. 76) Asserting that structures are theological statements, he proposes that “the church ought to be led by a Spirit-gifted polycentric team of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who model and equip their fellow priests in the communal way of life patterned after our triune God.” (p.92) JR further submits that polycentric leadership can be good for one’s emotional health, enhancing the pursuit of wholeness and interdependence in community.

Part 3 forms the book’s core, providing a detailed look at each of the five-fold equippers, rooted in an understanding of Jesus himself as the ultimate culture creator who was concurrently the archetypical apostle (dream awakener), prophet (heart revealer), evangelist (story teller), pastor (soul healer) and teacher (light giver). Employing a mix of ministry anecdotes and vivid examples, JR’s chapter-length portrayals of each role are where the book shines brightest. The chapters on five-fold ministry close with reflection questions to help readers discern which equipper they are. While reading these winsome depictions blending freshness and familiarity, I often found myself thinking, “I’ve never thought about it that way, but it totally makes sense.”

In Part 4, the book concludes with practical implications for embodying a missional culture in one’s particular context. Recalling the cultural web’s six elements introduced in Part 1, JR suggests ways to apply core practices and liturgies to the rhythms of a neighborhood church. Using Jamie Smith’s notion of “thick, bodily practices that engage our senses, grab our hearts, form our identities and reshape our desires,” (p. 188) JR advises specific practices corresponding to each of the five equippers, such as solitude for prophets and confession for pastors. The final chapters offer further specifics on possible strategies for multiplying disciples, commissioning equippers and implementing polycentric leadership.

Tightly written with thoughtful eloquence, this is not just another book with a trendy title. Creating a Missional Culture is a gold mine for anyone desiring to see Christians flourish in their giftings. If you are new to the missional conversation (or skeptical of its veracity), here is an outstanding primer on the local church’s role in God’s redemptive purposes. If you are steeped in the latest church-planting lingo, this book will spur imaginative reflection on the possibilities of polycentric leadership. Thanks to its accessible, yet expansive theological vision loaded with practical wisdom, I suspect this will become an essential text for ministry practitioners of diverse backgrounds, especially those with an affinity for Newbigin’s thought.

[Also: A free online five-fold equipper assessment can be found at JR’s website.]

Summer reading recap

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The most lazily enriching summer of my life has come to an end.

But oh what a summer it was; rejoicing after graduation, reconnecting with family, relaxing internationally, recuperating from busyness via recreation outdoors, realigning the soul through reflective prayer and preaching.

And let’s not forget the signature diversion of summertime bliss: reading. No summer is complete without a stack of good pages (paper or digital) within reach at all times. It’s taken me over a year to finally polish off some titles from last summer’s list, but I’ve enjoyed finishing up the following books in recent months:

Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church: In praise of institutions and organized religion (Moody, 2009)

Michael Gerson & Peter Wehner, City of Man: Religion and politics in a new era (Moody, 2010)

Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The story of the world in the life of Jesus (Dutton, 2011)

Martin Luther King, Jr. & Clayborne Carson (ed.), The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Warner, 2008)

Grant McClung (ed.), Azusa Street and Beyond: 100 years of commentary on the global pentecostal/charismatic movement (Bridge-Logos, 2006)

Brenda Salter McNeil, A Credible Witness: Reflections on power, evangelism and race (IVP, 2008)

Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A short and personal introduction (Eerdmans, 2011)

Rich Nathan & Ken Wilson, Empowered Evangelicals: Bringing together the best of the evangelical and charismatic worlds (Ampelon, 2009)

Brandon O’BrienThe Strategically Small Church: Intimate, nimble, authentic, effective (Bethany, 2010)

Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why sex is too important to define who we are (IVP, 2011)

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The shape of pastoral integrity (Eerdmans, 1987)

Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (B&H, 2006)

Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the human in an ideological age (ISI, 2011)

[image by ginnerobot]

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