Monday, June 30, 2014

Missions Monday: Why We Go

As spring and summer approach, mission teams from churches all over America begin gearing up for a busy season. Anyone who frequents airports for either business or pleasure has no doubt seen oceans of identical T-shirts wandering the concourses between connections, and those wearing those T-shirts expect no less than a "great missions experience." Summer has barely begun, and our Association has already had teams on the ground in several different parts of the globe, with our most recent effort just concluding last week, as our disaster relief team continued its work in Long Island, New York.  But why do they really go?

In a few days, I will post my annual summer reading list, give the blogosphere a rather long rest and depart for an Asian country myself.  I'll log quite a few miles between now and the end of summer, and like most who plan for trips like this, my small team expects a "great experience." But several years ago I ran into an article by Dave Livermore that I think should be read by anyone who aspires to go abroad.

Livermore is the Director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Seminary, where he also teaches Intercultural Studies. He is also the author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. In that work, he stresses the importance of cultural sensitivity when doing missions, and Mark Oestreicher of Youth Specialties gives the book plenty of praise, stating that mission efforts by American evangelical churches, while all well-intentioned, have not always been thoughtful. "[M]any of us have been concerned over the years that we've created a monster, doing more damage than ministry."

I share Oestreicher's assessment. Livermore cites research he generated from 250 national pastors who minister in 21 different countries, and each of them, while very appreciative of the efforts of American churches, also clearly delineated 10 things they literally "hated" about American mission projects. Whether your efforts this summer take you to Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, or Asia, the following may sting a bit. Nevertheless, if we are truly going to be "on mission," we need to listen to these guys:

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):

1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You're so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you're still in North America.

4. You conclude that you're communicating effectively because we're paying attention when we're actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You're obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It's really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us 'backward' for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hurts, doesn't it?

Yet this is the way so many of our brothers and sisters in other lands view American Christians. Such things may help to explain why the nation with the greatest amount of material wealth, professional training, and mobilized volunteers accomplishes so little in the world.

The solution to this is, of course, to do a bit of a "gut check" before embarking on a trip of this nature. Take a moment to consider that those who worship Christ in other lands are not our "little" brothers and sisters. In fact, in many ways large portions of them could teach us a thing or two about what it means to follow Jesus. Bob Roberts expresses this same sentiment when he writes "Frankly, we have more need of them than they have of us. . . . .how arrogant we are to think that we must rush our missionaries over to closed parts of the world to tell them how to 'do church.' God, save them from us, and let them help us become more of who they are!"

So before you get on that plane this summer, ask yourself a hard question: "Why am I doing this?" Is this so you can travel to the other side of the world and play the part of the autonomous knower? If so, consider exchanging that ticket to Asia for one to the Caribbean to lay on a beach.   Both you and those you would insult might frankly be better served. But if your heart is that of a servant, who understands that the Kingdom of God is bigger than the west, who longs to learn from those to whom you minister as much or more than you will teach, then you probably understand, and will subsequently experience, what it really means to be "on mission."

This summer, I'll pray to just that end for you, and as I embark for overseas destinations in just a few weeks, I hope you will do the same for me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Theology Thursday: Our Approach to Scripture, and to Culture

This week, I'm teaching a doctoral seminar at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on current issues affecting the church.  Western evangelicalism faces an increasing number of challenges when it comes to engaging its surrounding culture in a way that is both faithful to Jesus, and fruitful within our current environment.  And sometimes, we find ourselves at cross-purposes with one another regarding an issue.

Whether we are dealing with family, sexuality, ecology, technology, or any other issue which has proven to be a "moving target" in our day, our approaches are sometimes divergent.  Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans, for example, both talk an awful lot about Jesus and claim a high level of reverence for the written Scriptures, but come to very different conclusions when it comes to homosexuality.  Jonathan Merritt and Albert Mohler likewise, often come to opposing views of numerous social and political issues that currently dominate our national conversation.

Most of the time, our differences in approach are merely that--varied and sometimes contrasting perspectives on how to effectively engage the world Jesus died to save.  But occasionally, the divide is much deeper.  The advent of what has been commonly called "post-evangelicalism" has, on the surface, seemed to be about engagement.  But beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that the issue is far more serious.

Its about how the authority of Scripture is perceived.

As a result, I led our Doctor of Ministry cohort yesterday morning in a discussion of the three prominent approaches to interpreting Scripture that are currently driving a lot of discussion within the western churches.  For pastors and other ministry leaders, this is crucially important to understand, because its not just our belief about Scripture that drives our approach to culture.  Its also how we approach its interpretation.

Currently, there are three predominant schools of thought in regard to how Scripture should be approached and interpreted.  While each approach brings perspectives that can be helpful to those who follow Jesus, some contain inherent dangers that can lead to failure rather than fruitfulness.  What follows is a very brief, and therefore admittedly somewhat oversimplified, overview of these approaches.

The Historical-Grammatical Approach:  Current approaches to this method emerged in the early 20th century in response to European higher criticism.  Like the higher critical approach, this method seeks to understand and respect the literary aspects of the Scriptural texts, and as a result gives heavy consideration to the literary, linguistic, contextual, historical, and canonical factors when seeking to determine meaning.

What sets this method apart however, is the presumption that authorial intent should govern our approach to interpretation.  And this presumption is informed by a view of Scripture that assumes a plenary verbal understanding of inspiration.  This is to say that advocates of this approach (myself included) come to the Bible presupposing that The Holy Spirit ensured that every word left to us in its pages is the fully inspired word of God Himself.  And since this inspiration is expressed through the personalities, writing styles,  and employed literary genres of the more than 40 human authors who penned the Scriptures, the best way to arrive at Scripture's meaning is to ask one simple question: "What did the Holy Spirit-inspired author intend to say here?"

Admittedly, this approach results in some degree of circular reasoning, and some of its advocates have occasionally fallen victim to epistemological idealism.  Nevertheless, this approach best undergirds a high view of Scripture as God's inspired Word, and is therefore the best starting point for understanding appropriate application to any context in which we might find ourselves.

The Postliberal Approach: This hermeneutical school of thought emerged out of a view of Scripture known as "Neo-orthodoxy."  George Lindbeck, Hans Willhelm Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom were deeply influenced by Karl Barth (the founder of Neo-orthodoxy), developed this approach to understanding Scripture while the three were teaching together at Yale Divinity School.  For this reason, the postliberal hermeneutic is sometimes loosely referred to as the "New Yale school."

Though this approach employs a non-foundationalist approach to the text, there is a very helpful side of it that recognizes--perhaps more clearly than their historical-grammatical counterparts--the noetic effects of the fall and the resulting inevitability of subjective interpretation.  Additionally, postliberal thinkers do affirm a "normative element" in every interpretation informed by the history of the church, and the way the global body of Christ has approached a given text.  Therefore, this school of thought sees a solemn responsibility of the present church as a "sub-community" which seeks to stand on the shoulders of those who read and interpreted in the past, while simultaneously forming active responses to current issues themselves.  As such, they focus on the community of faith as Holy Spirit-filled and thus competent interpreters of Scripture, further emboldened in their attempts by their brothers and sisters who interpret Scripture together with them in the sub-community.

The problem with this approach is the tendency to see the sub-community as the final authority in itself.  In many ways, this approach is an advocacy of Neo-orthodoxy in reverse.  Karl Barth taught that the transcendence of God meant He could not be fully and finally revealed in human language, and therefore Scriptural interpretation becomes an exercise in "listening past the scratches [human error in the text] in order to hear the Master's voice."  In other words, the Bible isn't the Word of God, but becomes the Word of God  as we encounter it and respond to it.  Conversely, postliberal hermeneutics require that the sub-community impart present meaning to the text, thereby placing the final interpretive authority not int he text itself, but in the sub-community.  In Neo-orthodoxy, Scripture isn't the Word of God until it meaningfully encounters us.  In postliberal thought, Scripture has no meaning until meaning is imparted by the sub-community. Current voices like Leonard Sweet have advocated this approach as the preferred approach--especially when seeking to address issues affected by philosophical postmodernism.  The inherent danger, however, is of a presumptuous sub-community that sees itself imparting meaning, and thus authority to the Biblical text.  The authority of Scripture is inherent.  Scripture doesn't need the church to be Scripture, or to have inherent meaning.

The "Redemptive Movement" Approach.  Canadian scholar William J. Webb is currently the most visible advocate of this interpretive approach.  His 2001 book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is a thoroughly researched, comprehensive description of this school of thought, which views Scripture as calling believers toward an "ultimate ethic" To do this, redemptive movement advocates seek to locate common "voices" in the text which collectively call believers toward a "progressive trajectory."  As a result, critics of this view will sometimes use the pejorative term "trajectory hermeneutic."

Webb point to three distinct recognitions that must be ascertained in order to properly interpret any Biblical command.  The first is the specific Biblical command itself.  The second is the cultural context in which that command appears.  The third is the "ultimate ethic" that can be determined by understanding how the command and surrounding culture relate to one another when they are placed together on a "trajectory."

This approach assumes an "arc of history" understanding of human progress.  That is, it views human history as a history of moving forward, becoming constantly more enlightened, and progressing forward in more effective ways.Though positive, this is a rather naive and simplistic view of history that sometimes results in what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery."  Thinking that my grandfather probably wasn't as smart and enlightened as me simply because I grew up 6 decades after he did is historically adolescent and full of hubris.  But thinking I have a better view of the "ultimate ethic" of God than Jeremiah or the Apostle Paul is simply spiritually dangerous.

The biggest issue with this approach is that the "ultimate ethic" is never clearly defined within Scripture.  When you leave the end result open like this, the inevitable result is that culture's prevailing views will determine meaning.  Such is precisely the kind of scenario that can end with entire churches who have their feet planted firmly in mid-air, and ultimately irrelevant to their communities and the world.  Though Webb stops short of full cultural capitulation, many who have come behind him have taken those additional steps, and there is nothing in this approach to interpretation to stop them from doing so.  In particular, when you read Justin Lee or Rachel Held Evans on homosexuality, you are reading opinions that are largely informed by this approach.  One does not have to employ this approach to recognize the culturally and covenantally-bound nature of some Biblical texts.

For followers of Jesus, every subject is ultimately a spiritual conversation, and consequently, a conversation that should take us back to our source of authority.  Understanding the proper way to interpret that authority source is perhaps more important today than it has ever been.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Missions Monday: New Missiology Text That is Worth a Look

The heart of the greatest commandment according to Jesus is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart," and "love your neighbor as yourself."  This two-fold passion forms the basis for any Biblically sound, missionally-vibrant, culturally effective approach to sharing the Gospel with people--be they across the street, or on the other side of the world.  And in just a  few days, three Southern Seminary missions professors will release a new introductory textbook designed to evoke both a greater love for both Jesus, and the world He died to save.

"Introduction to Global Missions" will release July 1 from B&H Publishing Group.  The three faculty who write its pages are all veteran missionaries, and speak eloquently and accurately to the way that Theology, Cultural Anthropology, and Cross-cultural communications should affect the way missions is executed in the 21st century.

A few quotes:

"The missionary's challenge is to avoid judging the culture as inferior before he understands it....We can never totally erase ethnocentrism, but being aware of it can help us delay critical judgement and learn to appreciate many aspects of other cultures."

"Given the level of syncretism with animism that exists in most religions, it is necessary to explore what people actually believe and do, not what their formal religion says they ought to believe.  The purpose of this research is not disinterested in scholarship or pluralistic dialogue, but effective communication.  People hear new information through the filter of their existing worldview."

From what I have read thus far, this should be a great resource for students, missionaries, and those who prepare missionaries.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tightening Your Belt With a Purpose: How to Budget During Tough Financial Times

Nearly six years after a near economic collapse, our nation continues to limp toward what has proven to be, at best, an anemic economic recovery.  Its truly scary out there, and over the past three years, I've watched as the people in the churches I serve have lost their livelihoods, homes, and hope. I've also had a front row seat to the effect of these realities on the churches themselves. Over the past several months, I've had many conversations with pastors who are seeing fresh batches of red ink, and wondering how to move forward.

This is also the time of year when church leadership begin to start planning for the next fiscal year, and occasionally, I've seen elder boards, finance committees, and pastors hit the panic button when their church started hemorrhaging financially. In the economy of the "new normal," everybody is feeling the pinch, and trying to determine how to do more with less.

There is a positive side to this. For years, many churches relied on fat incomes. Now that streams of income have grown fewer and more anemic, churches are learning to depend on the Lord. At the same time, I've seen quite a few knee jerk reactions to a drop in giving. Though these reactions, for the most part, are motivated by a noble desire to "save the church," an over-reactionary approach to what the corporate world calls "austerity measures" can result in a demoralized staff, a culture of panic ministries with no resources to operate, and a church adrift in "survival mode."

With all this in view (and with apparently no end in sight to our economic woes), I'm going to suggest a different approach. In the past year alone I've heard from several pastors who have had their salaries drastically and suddenly cut because of panicking financial administrators. I've seen ministries and mission efforts stopped in their tracks because the "bean-counters" reacted in fear, and I've seen churches unintentionally publicize desperation to the communities they are called to give hope to.

In other words, when you react to bad economic times by simply saying "cut, cut, cut," here is what you are saying to your church, and your community: "We are going to try and keep doing everything we have done before. We just aren't going to do it as well."

To be sure, no organization can continue spending more than it takes in (I'm waiting for the government to learn this lesson--perhaps in vain!) But there is a right way and a wrong way to cut spending. "Austerity measures" without a clear purpose don't communicate that you are responsible. They communicate that you are cheap!

So, how do you "cut with a purpose?"

1. Get ahead of the tsunami! Have good, sharp people on your financial team that can project income/giving trends in a way that allows you to prepare in advance. If you know a storm is coming, you can prepare for it in a way that minimizes the damage. Giving a pastor or staff member 60 days notice that they will have to absorb a huge cut in salary demoralizes staff in a way that can sometimes render them impotent to continue leading. A sudden freeze in spending not only damages effective ministries, but sends shock-waves of panic throughout an organization. People will honestly wonder if their paychecks are the next thing to get frozen!

On the other hand, if projections indicate that austerity measures might be necessary, communicate the reasons clearly, and communicate the plan as soon as possible. Get ahead of the problem, plan for it before it arrives, and give the people who work for the organization time to plan for it as well!

2. Re-visit your Vision and Mission. This is why I prefer the term "retrenchment" to "austerity." "Austerity" simply communicates that an organization is reducing its spending. "Retrenchment" communicates that an organization is facing tight financial times with its purpose and mission clearly in view.

The first question to ask in tight financial times is not "what do we cut," but instead, "What are we supposed to be doing?" The mission of God's church does not change simply because there isn't as much dough in the offering plate as their used to be. Though cuts must sometimes be made, making those cuts without first reassessing what the organization is called to do can unintentionally sabotage that mission. Every organization can cut spending, but no organization should cut things that will be to the detriment of the mission.

3. Jettison tangential emphases and the expenses needed to maintain them.During more affluent times, churches will often say "yes" to a program or ministry that might not be central to its purpose, but will fund it anyway because, well, the money is there.

In leaner times, when a church reassesses expenses in light of its mission and vision, the first things to go should be those things that weigh down the organization rather than help it to accomplish its goals. Most or all of these ministries may be good. But the church as a whole is ALWAYS more important than any of its parts. Don't de-fund a ministry central to the operation of the church and expect it to continue. Instead, defund ministries not central to the operation of the church, bury them with dignity, and move on!

4. Staff according to the new reality rather than merely reducing staff for the old reality. Too many churches and organizations, when seeking to cut spending in personnel, simply ask "who gets to stay, and who has to go." Both of these are the wrong first questions! Instead, construct a "new normal" in light of the overall purpose of the church, and ask how that "new normal" needs to be staffed. Yes, this may still mean that someone loses their job. But the question of whether someone keeps their job should never be answered only in light of the church's financial situation. Once tangential emphases have been eliminated and the next strategic steps of the church are clear, staffing decisions should be made in light of what it will take for the church to move forward. In one sense, you might call this "zero-based staffing."

Just because you can "afford" to keep someone doesn't mean you should. Conversely, tight financial times, in and of themselves, do not justify demoralizing a solid, faithful, and successful leader.

Austerity measures have become the norm in many churches and organizations. But cutting spending doesn't mean you have to be cheap. Tighten your belt with a purpose!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sometimes its a Crime, but its Always Abuse: Confronting Clergy Sexual Misconduct

He sat across the table from me--having formerly displayed signs of grief and sorrow over his actions, but now defiant in the face of possible removal from his ministerial duties.  "God forgave David, so why can't the church forgive me?"  Months earlier, he had begun an affair with one of his church members. Once news of the affair became public, I had several conversations with the pastor about the difference between forgiveness and restoration--between grace and his ability to keep his job.  And now here we sat--two months after the initial public revelations of his sin, and with an obvious sense in his mind that his "time out" was over and it was time for them to reinstate him.

During those two months, I had cried with him, prayed with him, and sought to reason with him regarding the seriousness of what he had done--without success.  My patience was running thin.

That meeting didn't end well--at all.

In the past 10 years, I've had a front-row seat to several moral failures by ministry leaders in our churches. The trauma that results from pastors and staff members who commit sexual sin is immeasurable.  It hurts on multiple levels in the deepest way. And it hurts me too. I've lost more than one friendship with a pastor because I refused to "justify" the behavior or fight the church for his job, and sometimes I'm asked why I take such a hard stand when this happens.

My answer is simple. Its because no one has more pain in these situations than the victims.  And they ARE victims!

This past week, the folks at Leadership Journal unintentionally ignited a firestorm when they published the online "testimony" of an anonymous Youth Pastor now in prison for the sexual abuse of one of the teen girls in his group.  In short order, the hashtag #howoldwereyou started trending on social media--with heartbreaking stories of those who have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of those they once called "pastor."  Ed Stetzer addressed this situation clearly in an earlier post today entitled  "Its Abuse, Not an Affair!"

As a pastor myself, but mostly as a father of three, I appreciate my friend for his strong stand in this article, which exposes the deceptive tactics of predators, and calls out the weak confessions of perpetrators for what they really are--an attempt to garner sympathy from a naive church that is all too eager to act as if nothing has happened.  One manipulative, tearful confession does not constitute Biblical repentance.  Charles Spurgeon said it well when he said  "A man is not ready to be restored until his repentance is as notorious and well-known as his sin."

As Ed rightly states, when this happens with a child under 18, it isn't just abuse, and it isn't just sin.  Its also a crime, and in such cases the police should be contacted without hesitation or question.

But while I am thankful for the emphasis on the prevention of child sexual abuse, and the rightful prosecution of those who commit such heinous acts, I think its also necessary to point out that all sexual misconduct between clergy and those they are charged with serving should be met with the same resolve.  Though the victim may be over 18, and considered a "consenting adult," the fact is that in such a situation, a pastor has used his office to take advantage of another.  It may not be a crime, but its definitely abuse.

Anytime there is sexual misconduct between pastor and parishioner, the issue isn't primarily about sex, but power.  This is because any counseling relationship between a pastor and one of his parishioners is automatically an "uneven" relationship.  These aren't two people on equal ground consenting to inappropriate behavior.  This is someone using his office to abuse his power for his own benefit and sinful pleasure.

Additionally, it is a breach of trust that stains the very office of Pastor.  Once when advising a church dealing with a moral failure of this sort, I advocated a review of accountability procedures by an outside, independent entity. My reason was simple: "You have to rebuild trust, even though those of you who are left did nothing to break it.  No one in the church ever thought this man would be capable of this, so now, even if subconsciously, they will wonder if those of you who are left are capable of it."

Abuse of power and breach of trust are THE issues every time there is inappropriate sexual contact between a pastor and someone over whom he serves as spiritual shepherd.  When the victim is a child, the pastor should be locked up.  But even when the victim is not a child, the victim is still a victim.

Even if what he has done isn't a crime, it is always, ALWAYS abuse, and for the sake of other pastors, our churches, the victims, and the reputation of Jesus Himself, abuse should always be sternly confronted.