Archive for the ‘emergent church’ Category

Reading old Newspapers can often be an exciting experience.  Especially in small town newspapers many editors were quite blunt and do the point.  Sometimes this makes for rather humorous descriptions of the rough and tumble life of early white frontier settlers.  Other times, their bluntness cut straight to the heart of an issue, convicting not only the readers of old but those who still gaze upon the articles today.  Recently I found such an article.

On May 18, 1888 the Harper Daily Sentinel in Harper, Ks published an op-ed piece about one of the Asian workmen who had left Harper to go back home.  While the wording grates on modern sensibilities, especially in the final sentence, the point comes across loud and clear.

1888 also happened to be the year that our church, Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church, was formed.  While I would say that the Mennonites have had some significant positive impact on our community, it is also still unfortunate that this article is just as applicable to our community as it was 125 years ago.  While the ethnic group in question has changed overtime, the core response of Christians those in our community who are “different” than we are seems to have changed very little.

For that matter it seems as though this article could also be written about our entire denomination.  Yes, there is a sweeping change in our understanding of what mission work is and where it happens, but that change has yet to permeate every person in our pews.  Perhaps the bright spot is that things really are shifting.  With the help of people like Alan and Eleanor Kreider we are re-thinking mission in a post-Christendom world.  We are changing the question from “How do we take Jesus to ‘those’ people over there” to “Where is God at work in this world and how can we get involved with that”.

I will continue to hold on to hope that things are changing.  In the mean time, however, articles like this continue to convict me that things have not changed enough and that there is still a lot of work to be done.

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This video says, pretty succinctly, some key things to understanding the world of teens looks like.  Especially from the perspective of parents and the church, this should be some pretty good motivation to renew our efforts of living out and articulating our faith in a meaningful way.

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This post is a followup to my thoughts on the controversy that preceded the release of this book.  You can read those thought on the wandering road  here, and on YAR  here.  This post is also on the MWR blog here.

An artist is, first and foremost, someone who sees the world differently than other people and helps others to see the world in that way.

Rob Bell is not a theologian; he’s an artist.

Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of every person who ever lived should be first and foremost understood as a work of art. From the vivid imagery and stories that he uses, down to the careful arrangement of words on the page for visual effect, Bell does a masterful job of evoking questions, providing insights and causing the reader to see age-old questions in new ways.

That said, Love Wins contains theology, most of which isn’t particularly new. Bell even says as much in the preface. The theology that is included, while worded differently, often resonates with many Anabaptist understandings of faith.

One of Rob’s central theses is that heaven and hell are real, but that they are more of a state of being than a physical place — heaven and hell are not reserved for some time in the future but have already begun.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of the Anabaptist understanding of the kingdom of heaven — that the kingdom of heaven has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that it has not yet fully been completed. Bell’s understanding and the Anabaptist understanding necessitate participation on the part of humans. Overall, many of the core theological concepts that Bell raises or alludes to can be found within various Anabaptist scholars and leaders and have, at some point, been taught at all of our church colleges.

Controversy has surrounded this book, even before it was released, and has mainly centered on the doctrine of hell. However, what seemed more challenging to me was the chapter on different biblical images of atonement.

Bell describes the plethora of images found in the New Testament to describe and understand Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Bell challenges the idea that there is one clean, simple way to understand the atonement of Jesus. This seems far more controversial and important than whether or not we have a precise understanding of hell — yet it feels as though this has been overshadowed in the controversy about the book.

Ultimately, Bell provides a provocative book that is adding fuel to an age-old fire. So if you’re looking for a well-footnoted, systematic theological treatise, this isn’t it. It is, however, biblically-based and rooted in scripture.

The book challenges certain understandings of the doctrine of hell, heaven and atonement. But I think these doctrines are more human constructs than biblical truth and rightly should be questioned. Even if Bell challenges beliefs that are seen as “orthodox,” this should not scare off Anabaptists. If it were not for challenging the orthodox doctrines of infant baptism, church and state relationships and faith-based violence, we Anabaptists would not be here today.

For those of us who grew up singing I John 4:7-8 at a church camp, and have grown to have a deep, tested, and sincere belief that these words are true, then Love Wins should be familiar territory for us. At the very least, it raises deeply important questions to our existence as humans and causes us to see ourselves and God in a new way. But then again, great art always does that.

For the first and best response to his critics, see Bell’s interview from March 14 here.  P.S.  Nothing happens until about 10 minutes in so skip ahead.

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Is Gandhi in hell?  What’s more, what is hell?  Or heaven, for that matter?

These are some of the questions that have sparked a bit of a firestorm around Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: a book about heaven hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived.  This first came across my radar screen when I read a post on Tony Jones’s blog late last week about the growing attention and criticism about this book.  Then I did some searching and saw that it has even made a splash on the national news scene from CNN to ABC.

Controversy in and of itself isn’t surprising with Rob Bell.  That’s happened before.  What is striking is that judgment has been leveled by a number of people who haven’t even read the book yet because it has not yet been released!

Ultimately the controversy stems from the fact that Bell is raising core questions about issues that are central to the Christian faith.  He has posed the questions in ways that have led some to conclude that Bell is promoting something called Universalism; a doctrine where everyone gets saved, no matter what.  Again, these are all assumptions because none of his critics have actually read the book yet.  The only worthwhile critique I’ve read so far is Greg Boyd’s, namely because he actually has read the book.  (As a side note, as an Anabaptist, it’s worth paying attention to Boyd partly because he’s grown very close to Mennonites in recent years, even flirting with the idea of joining MCUSA.)

What is most intriguing and frustrating to me is not the discussion about universalism, but rather the controversy itself and the way this has been discussed and argued about in the last couple of weeks.

It has been astounding to see the speed with which he has been denounced as a heretic and the forceful unwillingness to even raise the questions he poses.  For me this is a red flag.  Why are so many vigorously defending a relatively specific doctrine of hell?

When you look at the Bible, there is no one consistent understanding of hell.  For that matter, the concept of an afterlife in much of the Old Testament was non-existent.  God blesses and curses you through your descendants, not in an afterlife (See the 10 commandments).  There is no consistent version of hell in the Bible, and what is there most certainly doesn’t look like what most people today envision.  The image of a red guy with a pitchfork and horns comes from Dante’s Inferno, not the Bible.

I think that the reason that many have had such a knee jerk reaction is because the doctrine of hell is a powerful weapon.  Hell scares the…well..hell out of people.  Combined with a select few leaders who determine who’s in and who’s out, this fear fuels enormous power and control.  Even raising the question, as Bell has done, challenges the enormous power that many have enjoyed for centuries.

To be clear, I’m not defending Bell.  I haven’t read his book so I can’t say one way or another.  What I do know is that these questions are deeply important to an enormous number of people, both inside and outside the church.  It is critical for the church to pay attention to this.  It’s time that we learned to have these discussions, openly and honestly and in front of the watching eyes of the world.  Because as Bell says “what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.”

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Last night we took the youth group to big Christian rock concert in Wichita called Winter Jam.  After a very long day I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the event.

It was really quite a spectacle to behold.  The day started by camping out in line for about 3 hours, and then being in the arena for another 6.  There were 7 different bands that were very good and polished.  The theatrics of the event was impressive.  Everything was produced and orchestrated to an unbelievably high degree.  The set design was top notch, creating impressive and unique visuals for each band.  I was also impressed at the variety of bands that they had.  There were hard rock, pop, indi, and even the David Crowder band which is mainly a worship band but even threw in a bit of bluegrass.  Overall, the music was enjoyable and the show was breathtaking.

That being said, I was fairly overwhelmed by many other elements of the show.  And I do mean “show”.  The fact that it most certainly was a show including all of the “ministry times”, might be my first issue.  What’s more, I don’t go to many rock concerts, mainly because they exist to sell me stuff.  From minute one, it was obvious that the reason they were there was to sell me stuff at Winter Jam.  The only difference was that they heaped on Jesus-guilt along with the product pitch.  These things however, were relatively superficial issues.

After the warm up band, the next sequence of events begins to describe where my difficulties really began.  After the warm up band, one of the artists came out and promoted a cruise where there would be a whole number of Christian musicians performing.  Next, he brought up people from the three local Christian radio stations to promote them.  Then he brought up the tour pastor.  The pastor began by saying,  “Before we start by reading some scripture I want to recognize that there are a lot of armed forces personnel here and I want to remind us to thank them for defending our freedoms and bringing peace.”  Then, finally, he read the psalm 149, which has to do with making music to God with various instruments.  It also include a bit about God taking out some enemies, which he also mentioned with the note that this is about God making peace through war.   His main point with this scripture, however, was that we were justified in being at the concert because God commanded us to worship this way.

If I hadn’t been with 30 youth group kids I would have walked out then and there.

The rest of the concert had a quasi-generic Christian, but distinctly conservative feel.  It was a mix of patriotism, evangelism and commercialism.  Perhaps the point at which I was most offended was when the pastor, at several different points, appealed to people to either sponsor a child from an overseas orphanage or to give money in the freewill offering.  What was offensive was not that he appealed for these things in the first place.  What was offensive was when he said, “now some of you are hearing this and thinking, ‘oh I don’t have the money or I don’t think I can or I’d rather not’.  That’s the devil talking in your ear because the devil would like nothing more than for you to walk out of here without giving.”  I don’t think I even have to explain how theologically manipulative that is.

What I will give the pastor credit for was his pro-life rant.  To promote the orphanage project he asked the crowd if they were pro-life.  The place went wild with cheers.  Then he quoted James 1:27 which talks about pure and faultless religion is one that takes care of widow and orphans.  He flat out said that you’re really pro-life then you need to be there to care for a baby when a mother chooses to have the child instead of abort the child.  He even said that you’re not really a Christian if you don’t care for widows and orphans, and called out many Christians for only saying that they’re pro-life and not backing it up.  Needless to say, the crowd was considerably more quiet in their response to this part of his speech.  I was a little shocked, because this was the first time that I’ve heard someone at a very conservative event basically say that being pro-life means more than being pro-birth.  Now, that would have held more water for me if he hadn’t started the concert by elevating the military.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the event.  On one hand, the kids loved it and had a great time.  It’s not often that they get a chance to go to that big of an event.  I have no doubt that it hit a number of the kids very well and strengthened many of them in their faith.  Personally I enjoyed most of the music and even found a couple of bands I need to (re)discover.  On the other hand, there were key elements of this event that were the total embodiment of everything that I hate about American pop-Christianity.  Would I condone my youth group going in the future?  Probably.  Would I ever intentionally go again if it was just me?  Depends on who was playing and what my tolerance for bad theology was at that moment.  Will I wind up going again as a leader of a youth group? Probably.  But that’s the nature of the beast.

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As I was standing in the shower this morning, pondering the latest news story about the new Travel Safety Administration (TSA) search procedures, I came up with an interesting, Biblically based, idea about how one might go about resisting these new invasive search procedures.

Strip for the TSA

Follow me for a second and I’ll tell you what I mean.


The TSA has now upped the game when it comes to air travel. They are introducing new full body scanners which virtually remove all of your clothes and allow the TSA agents to see everything.  And I mean everything.  If you don’t want to submit to this scan then you can opt for the new enhanced pat down which involves, among other things, actually touching your genitals.  Here’s the catch.  Once you have gotten yourself into this situation and didn’t want to do either one, one would assume that you would be able to simply say, ‘no thanks, I’ll walk to California’ and leave the airport.  Not so fast.  It’s against federal law to leave the security screening process one you have started it, therefore if you choose to refuse both of these methods of search, you are subject to a $10,000 fine and/or a civil lawsuit   (All of this was brought to a head by the experience of John Tyner) So what that means, is that anyone who is traveling through a major city, has the chance of being stuck in a situation where you two apparent options are 1) be violated or 2) face fines and lawsuits.

Or are there really only two options?

Bible story time

One of the scriptures that popped into my head while thinking about this situation is from the Sermon on the Mount.  Specifically Matthew 5:38-42.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.[1]

In the book “Engaging the Powers” Walter Wink has an interesting interpretation of this passage in which he argues that each one of these things is actually a creative way to find a third way of creative non-violent resistance.[2] I was most drawn to his interpretation of the part about giving your cloak as well. Wink says that if someone became naked in the Biblical culture that the shame rested not on the naked person, but rather on the person who made them naked.  Therefore, if someone is suing you to take the clothes off of your back, give them all of your clothes and walk out of the courtroom naked with your head held high.  In a situation where the only two apparent options are to fight or be victimized, Jesus presents a third way that resists the abuse and places the shame back on the abuser, all while complying with the letter of the law.

So here’s my proposal.

When you find yourself in a situation of being scanned, you should voluntarily, in public,

strip down naked.

This act would not be disobeying the command of the TSA but rather it would be going the ‘second mile’, if you will.  While on one hand it is submitting to the invasiveness of the screenings it is also doing it in such a way that takes control and power back in the situation.  And I would also venture to say that if such an act were done in front of all of the other passengers waiting in line, it would expose the true invasiveness of the procedure and thus place the ultimate shame on the TSA, not on the individual.

Creative.  Non-violent.  Resisting.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:38-42). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] Wink, Walter, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. 1992 Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. 75-84

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Ok, confession time.  When I hear Shane Claiborne and Rob Bell I get jealous.  They have essentially become exceedingly popular and influential by preaching a message that is essentially Anabaptism.  Traditional Anabaptists (like myself) have clearly not enjoyed the same amount of popularity that many of these new Anabaptists are enjoying.  In fact, it feels like my people have been marginalized for 500 years, and then a couple of young punks come by and say the same thing while wearing hipster glasses and dreadlocks and all of a sudden everyone thinks it’s a great and brand new idea.

Obviously this is something of an overstatement, but the spread of Anabaptist thought and ideas into more mainstream Christianity is happening.  I recently came across an article from The American Spectator that even raises the question of a “Mennonite takeover”.  While the idea of Mennonites taking over anything seems a bit counter intuitive, I must say that the article does highlight an interesting trend.  There are a number of increasingly high profile people who are not from traditional Anabaptist denominations, but who are preaching, teaching, learning from and drawing off of the Anabaptist tradition and core modern Anabaptist theologians.

The article names Shane ClaiborneGreg Boyd, and Jim Wallis.  But I would also make sure to include Rob Bell from Mars Hill in Michigan and Stuart Murray from the Anabaptist Network in England.  And this doesn’t even include the multitude of people and churches in the Emerging Church movement that, in my opinion, are the best modern day expression of what Anabaptism would have looked like in the 16th century.

When I look at this resurgence of Anabaptist theology and thought part of me is frustrated and jealous.  It’s frustrating to hear someone else get the credit for what we’ve kept alive for so long.

But then I have to remember why it’s popular.

The reason that all of these new expressions of Anabaptist thought are so popular is because Jesus is so popular.  The early Anabaptists in the 1500’s weren’t trying to start a new denomination.  They weren’t trying to be remembered, or to get fame and glory.  They were trying to strip away all of those human trappings and simply get back to Jesus.  In fact, if Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Michael Sattler or any one of the other Anabaptist leaders would see us attempting to revive Anabaptism, they would be quick to stop us and correct us.

The real goal is not to resurrect Anabaptist belief, but rather to re-discover the Gospel of Jesus.

That’s why the neo-Anabaptists are so popular.  They’re preaching Jesus.  And yes, it is arrogant to say, but I believe that what they’re preaching sounds like Anabaptism because core Anabaptist belief is rooted in the Gospel and is centered on Jesus.  The Gospel is still as powerful today as it was 500 or 2000 years ago.

As I look at the neo-Anabaptists and find myself becoming jealous of their popularity, I must remind myself that the reason they are popular is because they are preaching the Gospel.  And for that I give thanks to God.  May the Gospel be preached throughout the land, even if I am not the one that people are listening to.

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Did the massive increase in the theology known as the prosperity Gospel help cause the economic collapse?

That was the question on the NPR show “Here and Now” yesterday.  The basic premise is that the prosperity Gospel teaches that you should go ahead and buy the fancy things (i.e. car, house, cell phones, clothes, etc…) that you can’t really afford because “God will give you the money to pay for it”.  The thinking is that this mentality then led people to do things like take out loans for houses that they couldn’t afford (sound familiar yet) on the “faith” that God would miraculously send them a check to pay the monthly payment.  The guest even goes so far as to compare the regional data that suggests the pockets of highest foreclosure rates coincide with pockets where the prosperity Gospel is very prevalent.

It’s an interesting premise.  I don’t know what I think yet but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Click here to listen to the program.

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It’s not that often that you have really life changing experiences.  In the past ten years or so, I seem to always have one or two when I attend the national convention of Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA).  Ten years ago to the week I was a high schooler at St. Louis 99 and received probably the most clear and amazing call to ministry that I’ve ever really had.  In more recently years it’s been amazing to take youth back to convention and to watch God work in their lives.  The wide eyed first timers are always the best.

This year was no exception.  I was really the only person from our group who had been to a convention, or at least multiple conventions.  After the first day it was apparent that most of the kids didn’t really know what they were getting into.  By 11:00 at night they just wanted to crash.  It was probably more emotional overload than anything, but that’s kinda what we’re going for here.  A number of the kids were really challenged in their own understandings of the faith and what it means for their lives.  It was really fantastic to watch unfold.

What I didn’t really expect was how convicted I became on a couple of issues.  One of which is economic justice.  Among others, Shane Claiborne really has continued to push me to question my role in our economic system.  I am at a pivotal point in my life where I have the opportunity to make some interesting and drastic decisions regarding how I want to live the rest of my life economically and I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions that I will shortly be making.  More importantly, I’ve continued to question the entire economic system as a whole and the vast disparities that it creates.  While this has been a growing thought for me, coming back from Columbus has continued to push me to say that addressing the inequalities of our system is really not about giving more to the food bank.  It’s about rethinking the entire system, and our place in it.  Even more importantly, I’ve come more to the conviction that these inequalities arise because we are so separated from people who are different than us.  Even in Harper, it’s possible to live you life not really knowing anyone who is different than you are.

And then George stopped by.

The week before I left for Columbus one of the other pastors in town came by with a guy who was backpacking (hitchhiking) across the country.  His name was George and he wanted to know if he could pick up trash around the church yard in return for a couch to sleep on.  I was a little taken aback at first and mumbled, “um…um…ok”  I then called one of the elders and double checked that it would be alright, sent the guy downstairs and then finished up the second meeting that I needed to go to that night.

After I got out of the meeting a strange thing happened; I kept hearing this voice in the back of my head saying very clearly and loudly, “i was a stranger and you welcomed me”.  He had asked if we had any food so I ran to the quick shop and picked up some basic supplies and made George supper and took it down to him at the church.

By the end of the night I wound up having a 3 hour conversation with George and didn’t get home until midnight.  That conversation was an amazing one.  I heard more of the Gospel preached from an agnostic homeless man than I’ve heard preached in many of our churches in a long time.

In our conversation said to me, “Alan, I’ve been all over this country and the grip that materialism has on our country is killing us.”  He said, “Alan, you wouldn’t believe the domestic abuse and dysfunction that exists all over this land but especially in the churches that I’ve stayed at.”  He said, “Jesus was really amazing, if only the people in the churches would actually follow what Jesus taught.”

I know without a shadow of a doubt that one night in June of 2009, I had a conversation with Jesus.

That’s what I mean when I say that we’re being called to something more.  That’s what I mean when I say we need to rethink the entire system that our country operates on.  If we come to invest our lives with the “other”, the people who are different than us then maybe, just maybe, will we be able to see the world in a different way.

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Some of you might know that I use the Revised Common Lectionary (mostly) in the process of selecting what scriptures to work with on any given sunday.  I use an online resource from the Vanderbilt Divinty school.  Mainly for a couple of reasons.  1) They have everything coordinated to that real life dates not just Year A, B, and C.  2) they have the full text for each sunday online.  3) The Text is the New Revised Standard Version, my version of choice.

So I just noticed, when I went back to the site this week, that they have revamped their website.  Not only is it easier to get around, they have also included links to various pieces of artwork as well as suggested prayers for each weeks text.  BOOYA!   Ok, I’m a nerd, but hopefully all my other pastor/bible-nerd friends who read the blog will find this helpful/interesting.  So, below are some links showing what I mean.  I used July 26, just as an example

Vanderbilt Lectionary site –   http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

Page for July 26

Art for July 26

Prayers for July 26

Yeah for Vanderbilt……and the Lectionary………….and the Bible!

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