Modernism, Mission Planning and Western Syncretism

August 2, 2012 in Mark, Africa, Mission, Theology

Eddie Arthur recently highlighted a couple of posts from Mark Meynell entitled “The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry: The Present and The Future“, where Mark looks at how a modernist worldview can affect the work of the church and at times lead away from the very values of the gospel that the church is called to live out. Mark looks at several trends in modern ministries, including our obsession with speed, novelty and uniformity.

But the sections that really stood out to me were his observations concerning “The economics of effectiveness” and “The hubris of strategy”.

But I fear a sinister trend has crept in. For if we’re not careful, we can seek an effectiveness shaped more by Wall St than the via Dolorosa. Big business constantly seeks a combination of efficiency and growth in order to thrive… which is fair enough. Maximum profit for minimum effort. But this is effectiveness measured by the Damoclean sword of the bottom line. Read the rest of this entry →

Fighting the battle with the enemy’s weapons

November 30, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Simon Cozens always seems to have fascinating thoughts on the Bible, mission and post-modern culture. Recently he posted about apologetics, and why the modernist style of apologetics can be very much at odds with the model of mission we see in the Bible.

The big-name Christian apologists are, basically, modernists. Their method of apologetics is to show that belief in the God of Christianity is entirely compatible with human rationality. In other words, they are accepting the proposition that human rationality is the standard against which God is judged. This may not be particularly glorifying to God but it certainly glorifies human rationality. Read the rest of this entry →

A missional reading of Matthew 2

August 10, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Our Bible study group continued a couple of weeks ago in our study of Matthew, trying to read each chapter as the original hearers would have heard it, in order to understand the missional implications of Matthew’s words for them in their situation, and then for us in ours. Here are some of our thoughts…

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,and we have come to worship him.”

3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

The Escape to Egypt

13After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

16 Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. 17 Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A cry was heard in Ramah—
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead.”

The Return to Nazareth

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20“Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

21 So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. 22 But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. 23 So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2)

The wise men are Gentiles coming from the East. They are the first to call Jesus the King of the Jews. This is mirrored by another Gentile, Pilate, calling Jesus the King of the Jews in very different circumstances at the end of the gospel.

The prophecy that Matthew highlights in verse 6 is a combination of Micah 5:2-3, speaking of the return of Israel from exile, together with 2 Samuel 5:2, where the words are spoken of in reference to King David.

So in these first few verses we again have the key themes from chapter one of the kingship of Jesus, the return from exile of Israel, and people of all nations being part of what God is doing.

The theme of kingship also highlights stark contrasts between Jesus and Herod. Herod is the illegitimate king, whereas Jesus is from the true royal ancestral line. Herod has earthly power but no genuine authority. Jesus has complete legitimacy and authority but no worldly power – he is just a baby. Herod isn’t even accepted by his own people, whereas wise men travel from far away to pay their respects to Jesus. Herod rules by power and fear, but Jesus will shepherd his people.

Matthew then goes on to narrate the escape to Egypt of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and their subsequent return, with many echoes of Moses and the people of Israel escaping from Egypt. It is interesting that in some of these parallels Jesus is identified with Moses, the one who led Israel out of captivity (Jesus escapes being killed by the king as a baby, Jesus is exiled but returns “when those who were tying to kill him were dead”, c.f. Exodus 4:19), while at other times he is identified with the people of Israel themselves, who are being rescued (he is the son who is called out of Egypt, c.f. Hosea 11:1 where Israel is the son). There is a sense in which Matthew is identifying Jesus with both Moses, who led Israel out of captivity, and Israel herself who needed rescuing.

The last two prophecies again are interesting – one from Jeremiah relating again to the return of Israel from exile, and the other… apparently not from anywhere! No one seems quite sure what Matthew had in mind when he “quoted” the prophecy “he will be called a Nazarene”, as there is no such reference in the Old Testament, or in any other known texts. In fact it is thought that Nazareth wasn’t even built until after Old Testament times. To me the most likely explanation derives precisely from the fact that Nazareth was an obscure place that was never mentioned in the Old Testament – it wasn’t somewhere where God’s messiah could be expected to come from (c.f. John 1:46), and hence Matthew is pointing out that Jesus will be rejected, called a nobody, and overlooked due to the apparent insignificance of his birth and upbringing.

What does all this have to do with God’s mission?

We can see God’s mission continue to be worked out through this chapter. Matthew is strongly hinting that the exile (at least in a spiritual and political sense) that is still being experienced is coming to an end and God is rescuing his people, although there are some surprises in how he is doing so. The genuine king has arrived, but it is not just the Jews who will acknowledge and come to him. In fact he may be honoured by those from afar while at the same time being ignored and rejected in large part by his own people. The messiah has come, but he has needed rescuing from Herod, and is identified with Israel being rescued from captivity in Egypt.

As we seek to join in with God’s mission it is vital that we understand what kind of mission it is. This mission involves people returning to God and God returning to his people, but that seems to look different to what might have been expected. It is about enthroning the rightful king, but while this king has ultimate authority he apparently yields no earthly power or force. It is about God’s chosen one putting things right, but he appears to be as vulnerable, if not more so, than those he has come to save. He will lead his people, but as a shepherd, not through power, fear or intimidation. While God’s mission fulfills all the ancient prophecies, it is at the same time surprising, with those who seemed far away from God being the first to recognise what he is doing.

What does it mean for the church to join in with God’s mission as we see it demonstrated here in Matthew 2?

  • We need to expect the unexpected, with God working in and through people we may have considered to be far from him, and through places or situations we might have regarded as insignificant or ungodly.
  • We should understand that while God has ultimate authority in the world, his kingdom is not about exerting power or force to achieve his purposes.
  • The church, like Jesus, should expect to be rejected and misunderstood, to be both ignored and persecuted. God’s mission is good news for all, but is also deeply threatening to those who are clinging insecurely to apparent power, so the church shouldn’t expect God’s good news to be popular with all.
  • As we continue to read Matthew we will follow the theme of Jesus being both the rescuer of God’s people Israel, but at the same time being identified with Israel, the one who needed to be rescued. Maybe the church also needs to be vulnerable, standing in and with those who are hurting and taking on their burdens, while at the same time pointing to the rescuer.
  • Matthew has shown that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah and king, but that there are many surprises now that he has arrived. How can the church creatively communicate to the world that we believe Jesus is king and ruler, but that his rule may be very different to what we might have imagined?

What do you think?

Wise men

A missional reading of Matthew 20:1-16

June 23, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Last week we were in Petaluma, California, spending time with friends and with one of our supporting churches. During our time there we were able to share with a couple of the home groups about the work we’re doing, and also to reflect on the message we’d heard in church about Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers from Matthew 20 and the role of this story in God’s mission.

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard.2He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.3“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing.4So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day.5So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

6“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

7“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

8“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first.9When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage.10When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage.11When they received their pay, they protested to the owner,12‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage?14Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you.15Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16

The first thing we noticed about this parable is that it comes immediately after the rich man asked Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. The rich man was part of God’s people Israel and had been following the law all his life, so probably expected Jesus to give him one or two pieces of advice and then commend him for being a faithful believer. But instead Jesus says that in order to really follow God he must sell all he has and give it to the poor.

Next Peter asks Jesus what he and the other disciples will receive as they have given up everything to follow him. Jesus tells them they will be rewarded (which, given that some of them came from slightly dubious backgrounds, must have puzzled or even angered the rich man who had been following the law all his life) but then goes on to tell this parable.

What is the main message of the parable? What is Jesus trying to teach the rich man, and Peter, and the crowd, and us, about the nature of God’s kingdom?

I wonder if the point of this parable is that rewards are not really the important part of God’s kingdom. Every worker received the same wage in the story, but the emphasis is on the vineyard owner doing as he pleases with his money. Yes, those like Peter who give up everything to follow Christ will be rewarded (even if from the point of view of the rich man they have only started working at the eleventh hour), but the story ultimately illustrates how none of the workers can feel more important or more worthy than any of the others. The right response of the workers is simply to be faithful with whatever opportunity they are given, rather than seeking reward or comparing themselves to others.

In the world money, rewards, power and status are important. Immediately after this parable Matthew records the mother of James and John asking that they have the most prestigious places in his kingdom. But I think in this story Jesus is saying that actually his kingdom is not about rewards, it’s not about comparing ourselves with others or trying to achieve more status or power. It’s not about getting ahead or looking down on those who are not playing the game as well as we are. But rather it’s about service, sacrifice and being faithful with the good gifts and the opportunities that God gives us.

How is this missional? Well, I think the main aim of God’s mission, and of Jesus’ life on earth, is to establish his kingdom. Many of the stories Jesus told, including this one, were aimed at sparking people’s imaginations to envision the new creation that God is bringing about, simultaneously teaching about his kingdom and drawing the hearers into it. As we read these stories I think we can learn a huge amount by seeking to understand what Jesus was trying to communicate, what attitudes and misconceptions he was trying to correct, and the methods he used to try to do this.

As we seek to live as missional people in our world, playing our part in God’s mission, how can we, like Jesus, help those outside the church to understand what God’s kingdom is really like? We live in a world where power, money and status are seen to be hugely important, and people naturally assume that it is the same in God’s kingdom. Jesus creatively and imaginatively challenged people to think outside of this box and realise that God’s kingdom turns these values upside-down, making the first last and the last first.

How can we as Christians be showing the world, through our lives and through creative means of communication, that God’s kingdom is not about power, money or status, or about trying to do better than those around us? How can we show that following Jesus is about giving, sacrifice, putting others before ourselves, and being faithful whatever opportunities God gives us?


The Mission of God’s People

February 14, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Books, Church, Mission, Theology

In the library today I picked up Chris Wright’s latest book, The Mission of God’s People. So far I’ve only read the introduction, but I’m excited by how Wright seeks to bring together theology and mission, helping us to realise that God’s mission, the Bible and the church cannot be separated, but all rely on each other.

Wright explains in the introduction that

I am the son of missionary parents and I studied theology at Cambridge. But the two seemed to have little connection in my youthful zeal as a Christian. They certainly had no connection in my Cambridge theology studies, where (as far as I remember) “missiology” was not even a word at the time. Most of my Christian friends who were interested in supporting and praying for missionary work were not interested in theology, beyond weekly Bible studies. And the theology department certainly wasn’t interested in mission.

Theology, it seems, is all about God. It rummages around in what (mostly dead) people have thought and written about God, God’s character and actions, God’s relationship to the world, to human society, God’s involvement in the past, present and future, and the like. Mission, in happy contrast, is all about us the living, and what we (or some of us at least) believe we are supposed to be doing in the world to help God along a bit. Mission seems to be about helping God to get over those barriers of strange cultures and faraway places that he seems to have such difficulty crossing.

So, in mutual suspicion, theologians may not relish their theories being muddied by facts on the ground and the challenging questions thrown up by the messiness of practical mission. Practitioners of mission, in quick riposte, may not wish to see their urgent commitment to getting on with the job Christ entrusted to us delayed by indulgent navel-gazing about obscure long words ending in -ology.

And so the dangerous result is that theology proceeds without missional input or output, while mission proceeds without theological guidance or evaluation. […]

There should be no theology that does not relate to the mission of the church – either by being generated out of the church’s mission or by inspiring and shaping it. And there should be no mission of the church carried on without deep theological roots in the soil of the Bible.

No theology without missional impact; no mission without theological foundations.

Apparently The Mission of God’s People is more than just a shorter and easier version of the excellent The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (which I’ve blogged about a couple of times). Whereas Wright’s former book looked at the theme of mission running throughout the Bible, asking what it means to read the whole Bible from a missional perspective, this book assumes that mission is a major theme of the Bible and asks “so what?” What does it then mean for God’s people today to live in light of his missional nature, and his ongoing work of reaching out to all nations?

I’m reading a few other good books at the moment too, so I was thinking this one would have to wait but it’s doing its best to push to the front of the line…