Mission is a lot like midwifery

Mission is a lot like midwifery

Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” Maybe if you want to change the church you should change the metaphors you use to describe it too. You’re probably familiar with the church’s use of militaristic imagery to describe its role in the world. This has often been expressed in the vocabulary of aggression, conquest, crusade, advance parties, and beach-heads. Church leaders often see nothing incongruous in using the language of military campaigns to describe their role of sharing Jesus with the world. At a time when the dominant evangelical tone seems arrogant, angry, or afraid (or all three), maybe now more than ever we need a different lens by which to view the church. Maybe we need a more life-giving metaphor. Why not try this metaphor on for size: the church is a midwife to the delivery of the world God is birthing. Stay with me. Isaiah 42:14 refers to God groaning like a woman in labor. And in Numbers 11:12, as the Israelites complain of only having manna to eat in the wilderness, Moses says to God with an almost sarcastic inflection, “Did I give birth to these people? Did I bring them into the world? Why did you tell me to carry them in my arms like a mother carries a

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Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

With all the hullabaloo about the film version of The Shack I find it amusing to read reviews questioning whether the film (and by extension, the book) teaches biblical truth. Twenty years ago, Christians had no problem suggesting that Neo in The Matrix was a Christ figure, and that popping that red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes was a metaphor for Christian conversion. Fifteen years ago, preachers were happy to pepper their sermons with references to the Lord of the Rings film series. And even though Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was based in part on devotional works like the Friday of Sorrows and the reputed Marian apparitions attributed to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Protestants happily hosted film nights and encouraged their members to bring their friends along to see it. So why is The Shack being viewed so suspiciously? Presumably because it’s been cursed with the classification as a “Christian novel” in a way that, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn’t. C.S. Lewis was a devoted Christian and his Narnia books (and subsequent films) were embraced by Christians as presenting biblical themes, with Aslan becoming one of the most loved Christ figures in literature. But the Narnia series was never classified in a limited sense as “Christian fiction”. Likewise, novelist

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Being silenced on sex isn’t the end of Christianity

Being silenced on sex isn’t the end of Christianity

In America and Ireland, the touchstone of public outrage about same-sex marriage seems to have been wedding cake bakers. In Australia, perhaps fittingly, its brewers. Recently, an Australian beer company appeared to sponsor a debate between two politicians arguing for and against marriage equality (same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Australia). The brewery didn’t actually sponsor the debate (explaining that will take way too long), but the mere appearance of involvement in a debate in which the conservative view was being presented touched off a firestorm. The brewery was the subject of a public boycott, social media ridicule, and even threats against their staff. They promptly renounced all involvement in the debate (which was true) and formally signed a pledge to support marriage equality. The response by conservative Christians to this strange episode was nothing less than feverish. One blogger announced, “The overriding lesson to learn from the debacle is that it’s over, baby – give it up.  The cultural narrative no longer includes us in its story except as the villain in the piece.  And we’d better get used to it.” Yikes. That sounds bad, right? Even worse, another distraught minister blogged that Christianity in Australia was going to be “pushed into Southern Ocean.” “Let the reader understand,” he announced, “anyone, any organization or person who allies themselves with civil

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What the Weird Cities movement is showing the suburban church

What the Weird Cities movement is showing the suburban church

In my last blog I explored some of the signs that suburbia is dying and warned the church against identifying itself so strongly with suburban culture. There’s a cultural shift happening and some cities are catching on quicker than others. In 2000, Austin, Texas, adopted the expression “Keep Austin Weird” as its city slogan. Generated as a grassroots expression of place attachment and anti-commercialization, Keep Austin Weird became a rallying cry for local business, a sense of neighborhood and a zone for creative resistance. The slogan has since been appropriated by Santa Cruz, Portland, and a bunch of other cities across the US. The “Keep [insert city name] Weird” tagline was interrogated by Joshua Long in his 2010 book, Weird City. He defined the weird city doctrine as a combination of the following elements: attachment to a sense of place; more socially and environmentally responsible consumption patterns; sustainable development; and urban politics. The weird city doctrine values such things as the beautification of the built environment, resistance to irresponsible gentrification, the promotion of boutique local industries, being a refuge for alternative lifestyles, addressing homelessness in more meaningful ways, and generally defying the cultural trends that make many other American cities so much the same. Of course, the most obvious question to ask is what are they keeping Austin weird from?

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The Death of Suburbia and the Suburban Church

The Death of Suburbia and the Suburban Church

Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next. ~ William Ralph Inge   Most Americans grow up in suburbs. Forty-four million people live in America’s 51 major metropolitan areas, while nearly 122 million live in their suburbs. And suburbia isn’t exclusively a white domain as it’s often depicted. One-third of suburbanites across the country are racial or ethnic minorities, up from 19 percent in 1990. Students in suburban public schools are 20 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American and 6 percent Asian American. For better or worse, the suburbs have reflected American society. In fact, suburbia has been so popular that, according to the American Farmland Trust, the US loses more than 1.4 million acres of farmland, forest and wetlands to suburban sprawl each year. Between 1982 and 2007, suburbia devoured an area the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined. But like Truman Burbank from The Truman Show, there are thousands of kids who grew up in the suburbs and want out. Like Truman they want to be explorers. Or visit Fiji. Only their Fiji isn’t in the middle of the Pacific. It could be just across country in one of the increasing number of cities that are eschewing the master-planned generic nature of American suburbia. The movement of young adults out

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We find our fathers where we can

We find our fathers where we can

The man’s name is Juan. He finds the boy hiding in an abandoned apartment and takes him home and feeds him. The boy won’t speak. He doesn’t speak because no one ever listens to him. Not the other boys who bully him and call him “faggot”. Not his crack-addicted mother. But Juan listens. Or tries to. He and his partner Teresa set a place for him at their table. And make up a bed for him. They let him sleep peacefully and in the morning when he tells them his name is Chiron and where he lives Juan returns him to the toxic home from which he comes. Later, Juan takes the boy down to the beach and coaxes him into the water. He shows him how to float and the basics of how to swim. He cradles him in the water holding him like a baby, or like a baptism. It’s the beginning of a touching friendship, depicted in the opening chapter of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, a powerful film about growing up poor, black and queer in America. But we know that Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, isn’t just a kindly neighbor. We know he’s a crack dealer. We know this because we’ve seen him plying his trade earlier in the film. And at first we think that Juan’s interest

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Theo Epstein and the art of discipleship

Theo Epstein and the art of discipleship

I don’t know much about baseball. Because I grew up in a culture without baseball, its appeal eludes me, sadly.  Sure, I’ve seen a few movies about the magic of the game (The Natural, Field of Dreams) or the science behind it (Moneyball) or the romance of baseball (For the Love of the Game). I just haven’t seen much actual baseball. But that hasn’t stopped me from hearing about this guy from the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein. Epstein, in case you don’t know, is the president of baseball operations for the Cubs. He guided them to their recent World Series victory, their first since 1908 (expect the film version to be out sometime soon). He turned around an over a century long losing streak not just by signing the best players in the game, but by looking for the best people. When Epstein and his scouts went looking for players they didn’t just assess their skill level. Epstein wanted players with character. “In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. We ask our scouts to provide three examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.” Say what? According to Epstein, to

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If you want to shape your city’s future, learn its past

If you want to shape your city’s future, learn its past

Recently, I’ve been blogging about how to “read” your context, to understand your neighborhood and to join God in what is going on there. I’ve been exploring the work of Michael Mata, professor of Transformational Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, and his five S’s for studying your place (structures, signs, spatial dynamics, social interaction and spirituality). You can start reading those articles here. But now I want to add a sixth S. I think you also need to learn your neighborhood’s story. The story of a place has a lasting impact on its personality and general culture, its strengths and weaknesses. Without knowing its story we fall prey to the possibility of misjudging a place for what it is not. Good missionaries will take the time to excavate and retell the history of their city. The study of place informs the way we pray for our neighbors, the way we extend love, and the way we can contend for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.   It’s like falling in love with your place – the more you discover, the more you can love with sincerity and wisdom. This process can lead us to accept what we don’t know, while still choosing to love in the everyday simplicity of what we’ve discovered.

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Taking the spiritual temperature of your neighborhood

Taking the spiritual temperature of your neighborhood

I was chatting to a young(ish) Baptist minister recently who was trying to recruit me to support a particular campaign he was developing (that’s not important right now). What intrigued me was that, as he was pitching his idea to me, he casually mentioned that he just met the local Catholic priest who had shown some interest in his campaign as well. I stopped him. “Earlier you told me you’ve ministered in that neighborhood for 10 years. And you only just met your local parish priest? Is he a new priest?” “No,” came the reply. “He’s been the local priest for nearly the same length of time as I’ve been there.” I lost all interest in his campaign proposal and started wondering how a Baptist minister and a Catholic priest could both be serving their congregations in such proximity, but have never met. If the Baptist hasn’t even met the Catholic – or the Pentecostal, or the Seventh Day Adventist – what hope is there that he’s met the local imam or Buddhist monk? I’m often hearing evangelical church leaders telling me they love their city or neighborhood, but I find myself wondering how well they even know the city they say they love. If you’re not even familiar with your fellow Christian leaders, there’s little chance you know any of

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We build our cities, and then our cities build us

We build our cities, and then our cities build us

How do you get to know the city you’re in? In recent posts I’ve been exploring a number of areas every church should examine in order to understand their neighbors better. I’ve referred to it as listening to your city in the same way as a doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to a patient. So far we’ve looked at what the structures of your city tell you about its inhabitants (here), and how to read the signs in your community (here).  In this post, I want to encourage you to examine space and social interaction. City planners give huge amount of time and energy trying to figure out what kinds of public spaces their city needs and how they shape healthy social interaction. You need to do the same. SPACE The spatial layout of any environment can foster relational interaction or snuff it out. Consider airport gate lounges, with their fixed lines of seating all facing the same direction, the lack of tables, or group spaces, and the dominance of screens. Their spatial layout makes them unconducive to interaction. They’re designed in a way that assumes you’re not here to stay, you’re just passing through. Likewise, for most neighborhoods there has been some degree of planning that has gone into creating the environment in which people live, work and

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