Vision versus the people

We’ve heard a lot in the Army world over the last few years about the importance of vision and having clear plans and goals for the future. I enjoy that style of thinking, and their seem to be a lot of examples in the Bible.

Still, it can become stultifying. It’s very easy to sacrifice the people we claim to serve for the sake of the vision. I have seen many church leaders use ‘the vision’ as an excuse to perpetrate all sorts of despicability on their people. Yet, we’re told, if we don’t have a clear vision for the future our churches are headed for certain death. Without vision, the people perish.

David Hayward believes that not having a vision or a goal doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything. I like this thinking too. I’d hate to be in a church where I’m a cog in someone’s five-year plan, rather than a disciple of Christ trying to grow in grace with my brothers and sisters.

I have to clarify that this is erroneous thinking. Like my daughter, I have no plans for her life. I do father her in such a way that she may have the wherewithal to be a healthy, wise and confident woman. THAT will be her contribution to the world! Take care of the roots and the tree will bear fruit. And it will bear fruit in accordance with its unique kind. I pastor a community that I try to keep free of vision, goal-setting and agendas. That’s my work for the most part. Many people now have grown an acute distaste for agendas on their lives. One such woman visited me earlier today and says that she can smell someone’s plan for her life way down the road and avoids it like the plague because she sees it as soul-destroying. I think that is radically rebellious but radically healthy.

What do we mean by ‘uniform?’

A few weeks ago I wrote about the place of the uniform within the Salvation Army. I suggested that whilst the uniform is supposed to be a public statement of our intention to take the Gospel to the world, it has become a sign of adherence to Salvation Army culture and an important tool in the maintenance of our hierarchy.

It seems I’m not the only one to have noticed this. (Actually, I know I’m not. Now I can prove it!) Eric Himes writes

As I grow in leadership and experience I am getting mixed messages about the purpose of the uniform. Is it a high calling? Is wearing it a prophetic act? Or is it simply a symbol of conformity and authority? Of all the messages out there, the latter gets the most prominence in the discourse. And I am not comfortable with this short-sighted purpose.
My fear is that we are settling to define the uniform as an adjective and not a noun. That we are only using it to describe who we are rather than what we are as Salvationists. If the uniform is a truly an effective prophetic tool than we shouldn’t only wear it for ourselves and at the same time, we should be wise in knowing when not to wear it and have the faith to believe that God would still use us to win His world.

Very true.

The Blue Parakeet–A review

The Blue Parakeet
I recently started working on the outline for a series of lectures or classes I’d like to offer next year in my church, covering the content of the Bible over thirteen weeks. My main approach will be to go over the overarching narrative, starting with Creation and the Fall, the Patriarchal period, and so on until the time of Jesus and the years following. I think this sort of thing is needed—we assume people know their biblical history (No! That was exilic, not intertestamental!), but experience tells me we might be a little undereducated in that area. Yet this sort of knowledge is fundamental to the most basic attempts at hermeneutics.

I also want to look at how the Bible was written and transmitted to us. And finally, I want to ask the important questions: ‘So what?’ and ‘What’s this got to do with me?’

This last part was always going to be the hardest. There are many parts of the Bible I want folk to take seriously—for example, the Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, I’m not so concerned if people pass over the purity codes in Leviticus, nor can I blame them if they skip over any of the geneaologies. To put it very crudely, how do I teach people which bits they have to listen to and which bits they can ignore?

There’s an old proverb that says, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ Right in the middle of my thinking about this issue I received my review copy of Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet. This was fantastic timing, as the book sets out to answer exactly this question:

Throughout [the process] of conversion and reading the Bible, I made discoveries that created a question that disturbed me and still does.

. . .

The discoveries and disturbances converged onto one big question:

How, then, are we to live out the Bible today?

McKnight argues that nobody practices everything the Bible instructs. We all pick and choose, even if we claim that we don’t.

He begins to answer his question with a parable. He tells the story of how a blue parakeet somehow found its way into his garden one day. The other birds (mainly sparrows) didn’t seem to be very impressed with the stranger—in fact, they were initially scared of it. After some time, however, they grew accustomed to the new arrival, accepting it into the garden as one of their own. It still wasn’t a sparrow though: it was still a parakeet. The sparrows had learnt to live with something different.

McKnight suggests that we frequently encounter blue parakeets. Sometimes they are people who think or act differently to the way we expect. Other times, and this is more to the point of the book, they will be passages of the Bible that might not be what we expect to find there. McKnight outlines three common ways we deal with the biblical text and tradition in our reading (if you want to know what they are, you’ll have to read the book!).

After this introduction, the book is divided into four parts. The first asks, ‘What is the Bible?’ It also spends a lot of time asking what it is not, describing a few errors people often make when they come to it. In short: there are no shortcuts. If you think you’ve figured it out, you’re just not trying hard enough! The Bible isn’t a book to be mastered.

The key to understanding the Bible is realising that the Bible tells the story of what God is doing—and still does. God has always spoken to people in the way that is most relevant to them. That is still the case, and we need to ask how God speaks to us today.

The rest of this part of the book outlines this story and where we fit into it. Whilst this is little more than summary, it is a fantastic overview of the theme of the Bible, beginning at creation and finishing with the final consummation of history.

Part two of the book deals with the question, ‘What is my relationship to the Bible?’ This section is a little less engaging than the rest of the book—in fact, one of the chapters is entitled ‘The Boring Chapter’ which is what the author’s wife called it after she read it. To be fair, it’s not that bad. It does, however, set up Part three, which deals a lot more with the mechanics of applying the teaching of the Bible.

McKnight has already made the point that Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible they will pay attention to. Here, he examines a few examples of the way we do this in practice. He looks at the ways we follow the Bible, then in another chapter discusses some of the reasons we have for not following the apparent teaching of the scripture.

The final chapters of the book are something of an extended example of his approach to the Bible: he deals with the biblical teaching on the place of women in the Church. He looks for ‘blue parakeets’ in the text: examples that might not fit with the traditional view that women should not have any teaching role in the church. Then he looks at the New Testament passages that appear to teach this view and asks: how do we pick and choose between them? The answer is to ask how these verses all fit into the overarching narrative of the Bible.

His conclusion? Again, you’ll have to buy the book to find out! As a member of a denomination that has always encouraged women in ministry, though, I was glad to see such a well written defence of the right of women to be used wherever God has called them.

Overall, I found this book to be well written, easy to read, and a welcome addition to my bookshelf. I did find the book disjointed in parts, as if McKnight had condensed two or three ideas for books into one—I occasionally found myself wondering if some of the material (whilst very good) was quite relevant to the topic at hand. For example, the material on the place of women in the church seemed out of place, somehow shoe-horned into a book on another topic. Still, it worked.

This book will work well in the course I am devising. It offers a robust approach to interpreting the Bible that takes into account the nature of the Bible, the humans that read it and the God that caused it to be written. I would recommend it to anyone who has read the Bible and asked ‘What has this got to do with me?’

The Blue Parakeet is available at Amazon.

Church growth: God gets an ‘F’

There’s an idea floating around the Army—and the wider church—that says that if churches aren’t growing the pastor needs to be replaced. I like to call this ‘oikonomic rationalism’—don’t worry if you don’t get the joke!

Tom in the Box is a parody site that likes to poke a bit of fun at trends in the church. Today’s post suggests that God may, in fact, be looking at losing his job.

After taking a close look at the situation, we have come to the sad conclusion that God just isn’t very good at saving people. He wants everyone to be saved, in fact that is His will. However, He can’t seem to bring this about. He only accomplishes His goal about 10-20% of the time. Because of that, we have decided that God deserves a grade of ‘F’ when it comes to salvation.


Scattered around the blogosphere…

Here are a few links I’ve been meaning to post but haven’t. Enjoy!

Keith Giles asks why Christians seem to prefer the wrtings of Paul to the sayings of Jesus. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the Gospels lately, and I’m amazed at how much of Jesus’ teaching I didn’t know.

The naked pastor has a poignant prayer of repentance for his sins as a pastor. This isn’t only applicable to the ‘professional’ clergy: this is for anyone who considers themselves a disciple of Christ.

Mark van Steewyk looks at the general tenor of conversations in the blogosphere, and asks When is it okay to be a jerk? Along the way he also calls for the word heretic to be stricken from the English language. xkcd puts it more graphically:

BoingBoing ran a story about extreme ironing. For reasons unknown to me, this seems to be a predominantly male sport.

Rethinking church leadership

I came across two articles lately at the excellent Out of Ur blog.

The first looks at the ways churches get around the logistical problems of teaching larger and larger congregations. One of the popular ways is to set up congregations at different sites and stream the sermon/service/lecture/whatever in by video.

This is being trialled by a small church in Beeac, which is about twenty minutes away from where I live. They can no longer afford a pastor, so they have partnered with a big church in Melbourne and they receive the feed from there. From what I understand it’s a good way around a big problem.

Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes, though, it may be indicative (and the cause) of other problems:

Many advocates of video venues say there simply aren’t enough church planters and talented teachers to go around. And my response is that in a video venue world, there never will be. Pursued as a large scale strategy, video venues will inevitably lead to fewer and fewer gifted and experienced lay and vocational preachers. The gift of preaching— already suffering from over-professionalization—will become ever more the work of the celebrity.

The answer? We need to be more intentional about finding people who can take on teaching and leadership roles:

Ultimately, I believe what’s best is not to come up with new and creative ways to put space between the people teaching and those being taught. What’s best is to shrink that space as much as is humanly possible. If the problem is a lack of qualified teachers, do whatever you can to find, call, equip, and send teachers. Don’t install a screen and beam teaching from 200 miles away. If you must install that video venue, call it what it is—a necessary and temporary compromise until your prayers for more workers are answered.

The other article looks at the alarming rate of burnout amongst clergy in America and wonders if part of the blame can be put on the pressure modern pastors have to grow their churches.

I’ve just read an article by two Christian counselors about the soul-killing impact of church ministry on leaders. (The statistic above comes from them.) They note that the pressure to grow the church is a significant factor leading to pastoral burn out. And some pastors “admitted they promoted growth models that were incongruent with their values because of a desperate need to validate their pastoral leadership.” It seems too many of us have our identities wrapped up in the measurable outcomes of our work rather than in the life-giving love of the Christ we proclaim. Something’s wrong.

The article goes on to question the ways we measure the success of the clergy, and makes the refreshing observation that we ‘are more than the measurable outcomes of [our] work.’ This is just as an important question in Australia. I know many people who feel the same way. Our mission is important, but we’re supposed to bring good news to the captives—not put arbitrarily heavy loads on our leaders and tut-tut when they fail to carry them.

Hi folks!

Today I added this blog to the Facebook blogs application, and there’s a reasonable chance you’ve received an invitation to join the associated network. If so, welcome!

I’m not actually sure what the blog application does, but it looks sort of nice. If you’re here for the first time, have a look around and add a comment or two. I’d love to hear what you have to say!

A New Christian Manifesto

Obery Hendricks has a fantastic post up over at God’s Politics called A New Christian Manifesto. It’s American, but it succinctly wraps up a lot of what I think the Church in Australia should really be on about.

Jesus did not establish bureaucratic institutions, weekly social gatherings, or houses of religious entertainment. He started a movement that demands that rather than spending our time establishing ever more luxurious churches, we must strive to establish God’s kingdom of love and justice on earth as in heaven. The gospel he lived and died for summons us to treat all people and their needs as holy. This means instituting policies that fairly, equitably, and lovingly respond to the suffering and want of all of humanity.

A New Christian Manifesto (part one)

A New Christian Manifesto (part two)