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.

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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.]

Why the local church?

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church artThe church is no ordinary organization. We know this intuitively, as even the word ‘church’ can provoke strong reactions. Many of my postmodern peers seek deep spirituality, but resist the concept of church, preferring instead to identify as spiritual but not religious.

Comparing the church to other kinds of organizations is tricky. Every local church has a financial component, yet is not a business. It helps those in need, but is not strictly a non-profit. It facilitates teaching and learning, but is not a school. It offers encouragement for weary souls, but is not merely a support group for insiders. It cares about issues of public justice, but is not a political action committee (despite predictable schemes to use it as one).

Indeed, there is no organization of people quite like the church.

Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The church lives in the midst of history as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God.” (The Open Secret, p. 110) If Newbigin was correct, the church is not just another interest group gathered to make a difference, but the community through which God does his best work. Started by the Holy Spirit as an alternative community proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return, the church is Christ’s body in the world. Each local expression forms the visible community through which all lasting differences are made. Together we are a sign, instrument and foretaste of the kingdom.

That the church has made a ton of mistakes over the centuries is undeniable. Our shortcomings have been well-documented, our failings familiar to postmodern ears. Now as ever, our flawed attempts at mission hinge on divine grace and continual repentance. Since the early days, quirky collections of Jesus followers have found ways to locally gather, break bread and share life. In community, we find God’s remedy for isolation, immaturity and individualism. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no church. But without the church, there is no true communion of sinners and saints.

If anything, the church’s failures point to a greater, not lesser, need for common unity centered around Christ. When considered from a global perspective across time and cultures, the church is remarkably resilient. I cannot think of another voluntary association of people representing all ages and backgrounds that meets weekly, year-round in almost every nation on earth and has a 2000-year history of adaptation and survival.

The church has outlived the rise and fall of tyrannical empires, philosophical movements, socioeconomic conditions, cultural shifts and technological advances. And while Euro-Anglo religious structures decline in the West, the global, multicultural church has risen to unprecedented vitality in places like China, Nigeria and Brazil. According to historian Mark Noll, “Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now.” (New Shape of World Christianity, p. 21)

As former Christian “majorities” of North and West reverse roles with former “minorities” of South and East, I believe the global church’s best days are yet to come—not because we’re so clever in keeping it afloat with the latest techniques, but because God’s hands are all over this project.

7 churches in 9 days

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A couple months ago, a rare opportunity arose. My wife, who is employed at our neighborhood Lutheran church, took a trip to visit her family with our son for 2 weeks. With no official church responsibilities during this period, I suddenly had the freedom to partake of wild and crazy weekend indulgences I’ve always wanted to try. My chance had come and there was not a moment to lose. Yes, it was time for a multi-weekend, multi-tradition, investigative church sightseeing tour around Oahu.

What I did: Over a span of 2 weekends (from a Saturday evening until the following Sunday evening), I visited worship services at 7 different local churches from a range of faith traditions.

Why I did it: I was not assigned to do this for any seminary class, employment or other requirement. I simply have a curiosity about Hawaii’s church landscape and I enjoy discovering what others find spiritually meaningful. The goal of this project was neither to church-shop nor church-scoff, but to further my own understanding and awareness of Hawaii’s local church scene. In the long run, I’m hopeful these experiences will enrich my spiritual growth and competence in pastoral ministry.

How I selected the churches: In his acclaimed book, Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster surveys church history to identify 6 dimensions or “streams” of faith and practice that have shaped Christianity:

• The contemplative tradition: discovering the prayer-filled life
• The holiness tradition: discovering the virtuous life
• The charismatic tradition: discovering the Spirit-empowered life
• The social justice tradition: discovering the compassionate life
• The evangelical tradition: discovering the Word-centered life
• The incarnational tradition: discovering the sacramental life

In planning my visits, I tried to choose one church from each of the 6 traditions while balancing geographic and scheduling considerations.

—Wait, you visited a Mormon church too? You’d better explain yourself, Stringer. Indeed. As a seventh site, I chose to visit a Mormon church because a) I wanted to see for myself what actually takes place in a Mormon service contra stereotypes/rumors, and b) Mormons represent a sizable religious segment of Hawaii’s population (5.3% according to 2009 data).

Caveats: As a one-day visitor, I did not expect to gain an exhaustive understanding of each tradition or congregation. My purpose was merely to experience a taste of what might occur in each worship space on a given weekend. Naturally, some churches align more closely with their “tradition” than others. To the disappointment of some, I won’t get into every point of doctrine on which I may agree, disagree or not care. To protect the innocent, I have refrained from mentioning specific church names, locations and individuals.

Visit #1: A Large Seeker Church (evangelical tradition)
At a glance: With 6 convenient weekend service times to choose from, this was the most slick, positive, peppy and efficiently choreographed production I’ve ever attended, plus everyone on stage was conspicuously good-looking. In short, very Hillsong.
Highlight: In an uplifting Father’s Day video montage, teenagers in the church spoke lovingly about their dads.
Lowlight: The hard-driving content left no space for reflection, wonder or mystery.
I did not expect: Less than 100 people were in attendance, although it was one of 2 Saturday night services.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: You cannot out-slick these flashy productions, so don’t bother comparing your church with theirs. And beware the temptation to define yourself as “not them,” as you’re still pivoting around their model.
Question to ponder: It’s easy to scoff at megachurches as a foil to our superior sophistication, but what might be some of their undervalued contributions to the body of Christ’s overall health?

Visit #2: A Mormon Church
At a glance: Despite being the only adult male not wearing a white dress shirt, plenty of friendly faces, scurrying children and well-dressed adherents greeted me at every turn. One person even told me, “This is your home now.” A simple hour-long service included brief prayers, announcements, 2 speakers, 3 hymns on organ and “the sacrament.” Oh, and a woman delivered the benediction.
Highlight: A host of adorable children (who easily outnumbered the grownups) performed a charming musical number for Father’s Day.
Lowlight: Communion was served with bread and water (no wine or juice to be found).
I did not expect: One of the hymns went like this:

1. ’Tis sweet to sing the matchless love
Of Him who left his home above
And came to earth—oh, wondrous plan—
To suffer, bleed, and die for man!

2. ’Tis good to meet each Sabbath day
And, in his own appointed way,
Partake the emblems of his death,
And thus renew our love and faith.

3. Oh, blessed hour! communion sweet!
When children, friends, and teachers meet
And, in remembrance of his grace,
Unite in sweetest songs of praise.

4. For Jesus died on Calvary!
That all thru him might ransomed be.
Then sing hosannas to his name;
Let heav’n and earth his love proclaim.

Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: With Mormonism on the rise while traditional Christianity recedes or treads water in the West, perhaps we should temper expectations for ministry initiatives striving to be ‘progressive’ or ‘relevant.’ Mormons don’t seem preoccupied with becoming either, yet they are thriving more than ever.
Question to ponder: Much ink has been spilled on how evangelical Christians feel about Mormons (especially this election year), but what is their prevailing view of us, if any? Are there aspects of historic trinitarian Christianity with which they resonate?

Visit #3: An African American Church (social justice tradition) 
At a glance: Welcomed by ushers wearing white gloves, I entered a worship experience that could only be described with one word: freedom. From the gospel choir’s musicality, to the soloists’ improvisation, to the celebratory offering procession, to the preacher’s dynamic delivery bridging text to altar call, everything was about finding freedom in Jesus.
Highlight: The choir’s phenomenal rendition of “Can’t Give Up Now” brought me to tears.
Lowlight: Realizing that I’ll never be able to sing like that.
I did not expect: A hula performance. Then again, if other non-Hawaiians can dance hula, so why not African Americans too?
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: As diverse and inter-racially mixed as we claim to be here in the islands, many of our churches still have much distance to cover toward reflecting Hawaii’s multi-ethnic integration seen between Monday and Saturday.
Question to ponder: How can Hawaii’s evangelical churches better relate/integrate/collaborate with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ?

Visit #4: A Roman Catholic Mass (incarnational tradition)
At a glance: A diverse multitude of over 300 made for a vibrant atmosphere, and this was just one of their 5 weekend Mass times. Portions of the liturgy focused heavily on guilt, but the readings, creeds and musical elements blended well thematically.
Highlight: The call and response Psalms were musically accessible, yet evocatively profound given the sheer volume of congregants singing in unison.
Lowlight: No one personally introduced themself or initiated any conversation with me.
Something I did not expect: A semi-modern worship band (piano/guitar/percussion, but no bass/drums) led praise choruses with video-projected lyrics.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: We can learn a great deal from Catholics about including all our senses and incorporating the physical in worship.
Question to ponder: It seems like evangelicals and Catholics find ways to be ecumenical for common political causes, but how can we learn to work together in other contexts?

Visit #5: A Methodist Church (holiness tradition)
At a glance: Though small in number, this group of mostly elderly congregants gave me a huge and heartfelt welcome. I had barely made it up the steps before 5 people knew my name. By the time I found a pew, it seemed like everyone knew who I was. A familar selection of organ-accompanied hymns were fervently sung, while the 18-minute sermon supplied comfort and wisdom from the Psalms.
Highlight: At the service’s conclusion, everyone stood encircled and joined hands to sing “Shalom to You.”
Lowlight: The service was over in well under an hour. I wanted more.
Something I did not expect: When one of the greeters found out I regularly attend a Lutheran church, she said, “Those Lutherans are pretty conservative aren’t they?” I was speechless.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: With so many older congregations owning such nice church buildings, is there any chance of working something out with an aspiring church plant?
Question to ponder: What church will I be attending when I’m 75?

Visit #6: A Quaker Meeting (contemplative tradition)
At a glance: About 45 people entered quietly into a large living room. Some sat on couches, others on the floor. We began with 15 minutes of piano-led hymns requested a la carte. Then came a full hour of mostly unguided group silence, interspersed with spontaneous but thoughtfully succinct “messages” spoken by anyone wishing to do so. No one spoke more than once. The vibe was literary, refined and culturally savvy.
Highlight: Easily the longest period of silent group prayer I’ve experienced, I found it calming and refreshing.
Lowlight: Politically-driven posters and literature in all directions.
Something I did not expect: A free and tasty lunch was provided, not to mention enjoyable company at the table.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: Though we cannot cater to every whim of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, pastors should at least understand the factors shaping this increasingly common perspective.
Question to ponder: When I asked a few people if they had heard of a Quaker named Richard Foster, they all said no. Should I have been surprised?

Visit #7: An Independent Charismatic-Evangelical Church (charismatic tradition)
At a glance: Similar to the seeker church, this gathering also featured a talented young praise band and polished multimedia elements, but the emphasis was more on becoming equipped with spiritual gifts and empowered with inner strength “to fulfill your destiny.”
Highlight: I was encouraged to see so many college students and young adults participating in church life.
Lowlight: After being compulsorily guided to the second row, I got blasted with sound and had to awkwardly angle my neck to see anything above the ankles of people on the platform.
Something I did not expect: A well-crafted, balanced and exegetically substantive sermon on forgiving your enemies.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: The charismatic and evangelical traditions seem to garner the most ecclesial attention these days, but we cannot naïvely dismiss the other streams from our awareness without risking long-term harm to a robust and sustainable Christianity.
Question to ponder: How can we help younger Christians in church #7 benefit from the wisdom of seasoned Christians in church #5?

What you can’t blog about

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We 21st century Westerners seem increasingly comfortable sharing our baggage online. If you experience poor customer service or an expensive car repair, it’s fair game for a tweet or status update. In my case, I had a son who got cancer and died, so I blogged about it. No one told me to stop or change the subject. Most people, Christians or otherwise, can generally tolerate blog posts about how much you miss your deceased child.

What is simply intolerable is sharing how you were mistreated in church. First of all, there’s just no way to get away with it. The internet is far too public a forum for such deeply personal wounds. Plus, everyone will know who you’re talking about—or at least they will think they do. Ironically, the sweet and thoughtful people will heap guilt upon themselves. “Oh no, was that me?” But the real culprits will have no clue. So it’s not actually worth it. That’s why we don’t blog about church stuff.

Even in our increasingly permissive society, just about any topic is safer than a first-person account of church-inflicted wounds, including the standard taboos: politics, race, theology, sexuality, hell. To air one’s dirty laundry about church issues is to commit the eighth deadly sin. After all, it’s bad for business and probably won’t fix anything. So we passively bottle it and lug it around for years until the festering stench starts to scare people away. Keenly attuned to others’ possible agendas but not our own, we become self-appointed victims of spiritual abuse the world will never understand. Hrumph.

Yes, yes, I know. Matthew 18 tells us to share our grievances with the offending person and seek reconciliation on an individual level before taking it to others. Fair enough. There’s clearly a place for mustering up the guts to tell someone they ticked you off. The few times I’ve actually done it, I can report that it generally prevents a lot of bitterness and future headache. Any therapist will vouch for the basic principles of assertive conflict resolution, including an even-keeled use of diplomatic statements like, “My feelings were hurt when you dismembered my teddy bear’s arms.”

But what if there was no single person who actually offended you directly? What if you find yourself in an atmosphere where territorialism and suspicion lurk just beneath a waxy glaze of smiles and pseudo-inclusive lip service? What if you’ve tried your best to play by the rules and voice your viewpoints through the proper channels, but you still know you’re not welcome to be your true self? What if your expectations are likely too high and you simply need to accept certain realities about churches being smelly hospitals for sinners and clowns?

That’s why you don’t blog about church stuff.

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