Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Just wanted to let you know that the Faith & Politics Immigration Forum that we co-sponsored went very well this past Monday. About 40 of us gathered at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Aurora for a panel discussion on "Christian Responses to the Immigration Crisis". The panel consisted of Reverend Wayne Miller of St. Marks, Reverend Roy Brown of Progressive Baptist in Aurora (a predominantly African American congregation), and Father David Engbarth of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Aurora. I functioned as moderator for the discussion (and also represented both up/rooted and my own faith community, Via Christus in Yorkville). We gave the panelists about 45 minutes to respond to a few opening questions about the immigration issue and then opened it up for questions or comments from the audience.
I began by asking the panelists to describe their church and how immigration directly affects them. Father Engbarth probably had the most direct exposure of the three, as a large majority of his church was Hispanic. He gets to hear first hand accounts of immigrant life, and understands their struggles. He asked us to realize that at its core the immigration issue is very simple - it's literally a matter of survival. These people are not coming here because they want to. They are coming because they have no other choice for the survival of their families. They are economic refugees.
Rev. Brown said that his congregation, as African Americans, were dealing with having to share their power and status with a new minority group. I was especially interested in what he said about how the Hispanic community, by allowing themselves to be exploited and mistreated over here (often because undocumented immigrants have no ability to fight back), is actually undermining a lot of the civil rights that the black community has fought so hard for over the past 50 years. For instance, blacks have fought hard for fair wages and discrimination free work environments; but if Hispanic immigrants are willing to work for sub-standard pay and allow themselves to be mistreated by their employers, then that essentially undoes a lot of what blacks have worked towards.
Rev. Miller, representing a mostly white, middle-class congregation said that there is a difficulty in getting his people to see this as a justice issue (in the sense of respecting the human dignity of immigrants) rather than just a compassion issue (i.e. just giving poor immigrants a handout while still thinking of them as unwanted guests). He said his church was far more eager to get involved in ministries of compassion than ministries of justice.
The discussion quickly moved into the economic realities that are the underlying cause of immigration, both legal and illegal. Father Engbarth encouraged us to consider why these immigrants are coming here in the first place? What is it about our international, economic, political, and social systems that causes this situation? What is it that creates what are essentially "expendable human beings" (which is how many immigrants tend to feel about themselves because of how our society treats them, according to Father Engbarth). He suggested that the solution to immigration was not simply to seal our borders, but to focus on fighting global poverty and the systems that contribute to it.
In a similar vein, Rev. Miller said the key question was "Who is being served by our current immigration policy?" And the answer is that wealthy corporations and wealthy Americans in general are the ones currently benefitting from cheap, easily exploitable immigrant labor. He asked why we aren't doing something to dry up the demand for immigrants as much as trying to stem the supply.
Rev. Brown pointed out that stealing cheap labor from Mexico is not compassion, and suggested that while we should not deport immigrants already living here, we should seal our borders so as to protect immigrants from further exploitation.
When we opened it up for questions from the audience, discussion turned to how we can help undocumented immigrants become legal and help them "assimilate" without being patronizing or assuming they need to fit into the mold of white, middle-class American culture. We also talked some about the political and economic situation in Mexico that was causing so much immigration, and pointed out how free trade agreeements like NAFTA have exacerbated the problems greatly (though a lot of the blame also falls on the deep-seated and long-standing corruption in the Mexican government).
At this point we heard some first-hand testimony from a Mexican immigrant in the audience who shared with us his motivations for coming (his concern for the welfare of his family), his appreciation for America, and yet also his desire to return to Mexico someday. (One of the more interesting points made this evening was that most immigrants dream of going home someday to their native lands. They don't want to stay here in America forever. However, for most of them, that dream is eventually crushed and they resign themselves to staying in America.)
We closed the evening by asking how we could continue conversations like this, and how we could put these concerns into practical action. It was suggested that churches need to lead the way both politically, by advocating on behalf of the poor and the foreigners, and in creating practical processes by which we can help undocumented immigrants go through the steps they need to become legal. It was also said that churches simply need to be deliberate about integrating races and cultures, and do whatever they can to get different groups talking.
Overall we all felt like the night was a great success and we were eager to sponsor more forums like this in the future - perhaps spreading the net wider and involving more churches in the future. John Laesch, the Democratic candidate for Congress out here in my district, was there (we invited him and his opponent, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, though Hastert wasn't able to attend), and he suggested that eventually we should think about hosting a really big, area-wide event with speakers like Jim Wallis and others. It'd be really exciting to see if we could make this a regular thing and work up to that over the new few years. If we do, you can be sure I'll let you all know.
Speaking of future events, our next up/rooted gathering will be Monday, November 13 from 7-9pm at Kristine Socall's home in Winfield with a discussion on alternative forms of church, intentional communities, and radical discipleship. It should be great!
See you there,
Thursday, October 19, 2006
"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" - Matthew 25:40Evangelical Christians are uniting in an urgent effort to bring an immediate end to the genocide in Darfur.
In recent weeks, evangelical leaders have discovered profound unity on this crisis. Believing that God was calling them to act, a number of those leaders began talking about how evangelical Christians could respond together to this call. Those conversations led to the creation of Evangelicals for Darfur, a campaign that brings together media, web, and grassroots advocacy to call for an end to the senseless suffering in Darfur.
A broad and diverse group of evangelical leaders were eager to participate in this project. The leaders signed onto ads that are currently running in the nation's major newspapers calling on our nation's political leaders to boldly lead the effort to stop the suffering. I saw the ad in today's edition of the Chicago Tribune. The names at the bottom of the ad included:
- Rev. Rob Bell, Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Bible Church, author of Velvet Elvis
- Bishop Charles Blake, Pastor, West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Founder, Save Africa's Children
- Dr. Tony Campolo, Baptist evangelist and international speaker
- Rev. Rich Cizik, Vice-president for Government Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals
- Rev. Luis Cortés, Jr., President, Esperanza USA
- Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary, Reformed Church in America.
- Rev. Ted Haggard, President, National Association of Evangelicals
- Rev. Dr. Roberta Hestenes, Pastor, Community Presbyterian Church, Former President, Eastern University
- Dr. Joel Hunter, President, Christian Coalition of America
- Rev. Bill Hybels, Pastor, Willow Creek Church, leader of Willow Creek Association
- Bishop Harry Jackson, President, High Impact Leadership Coalition
- Dr. Richard Land, President, Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
- Rev. Brian McLaren, author, leader in emerging church
- David Neff, Editor & Vice President, Christianity Today
- Dr. Glenn R. Palmberg, President, Evangelical Covenant Church
- Dr. Bob Roberts, Jr., Founding Pastor, NorthWood Church & founder of the Glocalnet network of churches
- Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, Jr., President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
- Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw, President, National Baptist Convention, USA
- Dr. Ron Sider, Founder and President, Evangelicals for Social Action
- Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, International Director, World Evangelical Alliance
- Rev. Jim Wallis, President, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, author of God's Politics
- Rev. Gloria E. White-Hammond, MD, Co-Founder, My Sister's Keeper
- Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, President, Skinner Leadership Institute
- Lauren Winner, author, and Visiting Lecturer, Duke Divinity School
The ad read as follows:
Without you, Mr. President,
Darfur doesn't have a prayer.
We come to you from across the evangelical spectrum. We beseech you to act on your faith and do the right thing by leading the world to stop the genocide affecting "the least of these" in Darfur. To date, more than 400,000 people have been killed. 2.5 million displaced. Countless more have been raped, maimed, and tortured: Men, women, and children created in God's image, innocents all. Ending the atrocities will require your personal leadership in supporting the deployment of a strong U.N. peacekeeping force and multilateral economic sanctions. While we often disagree on matters of politics, we are united in the belief that your intervention can make the critical difference in Darfur. We join together now to urge you, in the words of Proverbs 24:11-12, to "rescue those being led away to death." We pledge to do everything we can to rally support in both Congress and the U.N. to uphold your efforts in bringing the horror in Darfu to an end.
If you want to add your name to the statement visit www.evangelicalsfordarfur.org. I am deeply encouraged by the broad spectrum of Christians who are speaking out together on this issue. Many of the names on this list are leaders whom I deeply respect. This is a cause that all of us should be able to get behind, regardless of denomination, theology, or political camp. For in matters of life and death, there is no left or right, there is only right and wrong. Together we can help make a life-saving difference for our brothers and sisters in Darfur.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
- How does/should a Christian/biblical worldview influence your approach to the issue of immigration?
- Is there any tension between your Christian ethical response and your political sensibilities?
- What is your church currently doing to respond to the immigration crisis?
The forum will be held on Monday, October 23 at 7pm at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Aurora (27 S. Edgelawn Dr).
See you there!
Saturday, October 07, 2006
You asked what the emerging church is and where it came from. Let's see... it started in the mid-nineties with a handful of evangelical pastors and authors who started noticing a shift in our culture and began asking themselves how the church needed to change and adapt to remain relevant to this new culture. Initially the conversation revolved around "generational" differences, in other words, how to reach out the Gen Xers. But it soon became apparent that the shift was broader than just young people. Our entire culture (for the most part) had transitioned from a Modern to a Postmodern world over the past 40 years or so; so church leaders began asking themselves what church in a postmodern context would look like. Over the next decade three overlapping streams of the conversation gradually emerged.
One stream, labeled by Ed Stetzer as "Relevants", have focused on worship styles and ways of "doing church". It was assumed that to reach postmoderns we would have to make church "cool" (e.g. coffee, candles, fine art, hip music, ancient liturgical elements, etc.) However, the point wasn't to be "trendy" so much as it was the missionary impulse to contextualize the gospel and worship to the local culture - in this case, early 21st century postmodern culture. I think it's mostly a good impulse. Granted, it can get a little faddish and formulaic at times, but on the other hand, I think we should be able to embrace experimentation and diversity in the ways we worship God, and to change our old habits and traditions in order to more effectively reach non-churched people. The key influencer in this stream has been Dan Kimball of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA with his books The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship.
Another stream, which Stetzer calls "Reconstructionists" has been more concerned with the structures and methods of church as a whole, not just with what we do in worship. There has been a lot of talk about the problems with big, institutional mega-churches and how they can become all about the show and the systems without encouraging authentic Christian community or spiritual transformation among its members. The reaction to this brand of contemporary Christianity has led many to look for smaller, more intimate expressions of church: house churches, cell churches, incarnational communities among the poor, etc. Reconstructionists have rejected the business-like models of church structure and leadership that have dominated both contemporary megachurches, as well as the older, more traditional churches, in favor of more collaborative, horizontal models. Some of these folks can be very anti-institutional, and tend to reject entirely the very idea of paid clergy, buildings, ministry programs, and the like - though of course there are varying degrees and not all reconstructionists go to that extreme. Spencer Burke from the Ooze is probably the best example of an extreme Reconstructionist that I know of, and George Barna's latest book, Revolution, focuses heavily on this trend.
The third stream, represented by the folks over at Emergent Village - folks like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and many others - is what Stetzer calls "Revisionists". However, since Stetzer means that term derogatorily, I prefer to call them "Re-Envisionists", as in re-envisioning our faith and what the gospel is really all about. This stream focuses on theological dialogue that has much overlap with the first two streams (inasmuch as worship styles and church structures are themselves theological issues). There is an openness to diverse viewpoints, and a willingness to question traditional evangelical assumptions, though there is still a deep commitment to the historic Christian faith as expressed in the early ecumenical creeds (e.g. Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.) In fact, I think the descriptors of this stream of the emerging church listed over at the wikipedia entry are actually really good:
All believers are missionaries who are sent to be a blessing to the culture around them through a lifestyle that brings God's kingdom here on earth through verbal evangelism, social activism and however God has gifted the individual.
Narrative presentations of faith and the Bible are emphasized over propositional presentations such as systematic theology which are viewed as reductionism.
An ecumenical understanding of doctrine which attempts to move beyond the conservative versus liberal impasse in Christianity while honoring the beliefs and traditions of premodern, modern and postmodern Christian denominations. This generosity also extends to dialogue with non-Christian religions and non-religious people for some emergents.
A commitment to emulating Jesus' way of living, in particular his loving of God, neighbors and those normally considered enemies. An understanding of the gospel as one centered on Christ that is a message about the Kingdom of God and reconciliation between God, man and creation.
An openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context. The influence of postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish can be seen in the emerging church approach to interpreting Scripture.
Favouring the sharing of experiences and interactions that are personal and sincere such as testimonies over scripted interactions such as propositional, formulaic evangelistic tracts and teaching. Emerging Church participants are thus true to the social constructs of their local narratives rather than to any absolute, ahistorical, cross-cultural authority.
Creating a safe environment for those with different opinions to talk and listen with an attitude of grace when there are disagreements as opposed to the dogmatic proclamation found in historic Christianity.
Emerging Church groups also typically emphasize the following elements:
* A flexible approach to and continual reexamination of theology which causes them to see faith as a journey rather than a destination, and to accept differences in beliefs and morals.
* A belief in creating communities built out of the creativity of those who are a part of each local body.
* A holistic view of the role of the church in society. This can mean anything from a higher degree of emphasis on social action, building relationships with the surrounding community, or Christian outreach.
* Creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection. This can involve everything from the use of contemporary music and films to liturgy, as well as more ancient customs, with a goal of making the church more appealing to postmodern people.
I would say that for me, a key shift in my understanding that has occurred thanks to the emerging church conversation is the recognition that the gospel is a lot bigger than just my own personal salvation (i.e. getting into heaven when I die). The gospel, rather, is about the kingdom of God, which is both a future hope and a present reality, and that "salvation" goes beyond forgiveness of sins to a radical transformation of my whole person as well as the whole world. This kingdom reality is about a way of life, the way of Christ, which we are called to begin following right here, right now as agents of the kingdom, working for justice, compassion, love and joy in the world around us. I have to say that this is a lot different than the gospel of personal salvation from hell, sin management, and dispensational (i.e. "Left Behind") eschatology that I grew up with. For instance, issues of social justice (e.g. care for the poor, fighting economic exploitation, overcoming racism, gender equality, care for the Creation, peacemaking, etc.) are no longer just "liberal" issues, but really are concerns that are central to the gospel message and to Christ's own mission on earth.
I hope that clarifies a little bit. Obviously this is all just my perspective, but I've been a part of the conversation for a long time now, and this is what I've observed over the years.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
One of the benefits of living here in the Chicago area is that there always seems to be some kind of interesting ministry or theology conference going on at one of the schools or churches around here. I'm writing to tell you all about one such opportunity. Act 3, formerly known as Reformation & Revival Ministries (led by the well known pastor and author, John Armstrong), is sponsoring a conference about The Missional Church and the Kingdom of Christ. The conference will be held November 3-4 at the First Reformed Church in South Holland, IL (south suburbs). The conference is exceptionally affordable and features a lot of great presenters, including John Franke, a theology professor at Biblical Theological Seminary and a member of the Emergent Coordinating Group. You can download a .pdf file of the conference brochure by clicking here.
From the brochure:
The question that must now be faced was posed by the late Lesslie Newbigin more than twenty years ago: “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call modern Western culture?”
In this conference we will seek to encourage Christians and churches to ask this missional question and provide insights on how it can be answered by those who have the desire to obey Christ in “preaching the good news of the kingdom” to our communities.
This conference is designed for students, ministers, and church members from all backgrounds.
Anyone and everyone from up/rooted is invited to attend if you so desire. Just to clarify, we will still be meeting for our "usual" up/rooted gathering some other time in November. This is just and additional opportunity that I wanted to make you all aware of .
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
I have to confess that Spencer’s book took me by surprise. All the buzz that I had heard about it focused on Spencer’s supposed “universalism” and that’s what I expected the book would mostly be about. But, as it turns out, that discussion is really only a very minor part of the whole book. Instead, the bulk of the book is about why Spencer thinks institutional religion’s time is past, and how we need to move beyond religion towards spirituality.
Let me say right off the bat that my goal here is not to discuss all the points that I disagreed with in this book and give my own counterpoints. That ground has already been well covered by Professor Scot McKnight at his blog, Jesus Creed. I’d highly recommend reading the dialogue there if you want a more in depth critique. Personally, while I didn’t agree with everything Spencer had to say, I think he did raise some good questions for conversation.
I was actually talking with Spencer on the phone a few weeks ago (arranging a lunch get-together at a conference we’ll both be at in November), and he explained to me that his book is really intended to be evangelistic as much as anything else. In other words, he wasn’t exactly trying to convince bible scholars or Christians who are already pretty certain on their views. He was writing, as I understand it, for the non-Christian who has been turned off by grace-less forms of institutional religion. Spencer also commented that his book really is intended to be a conversation starter, not a full-blown argument for why his views are right.
And start conversation it has. Some have criticized Spencer for using the word “Heretic” in the title of the book. The argument is that he’s not really heretical, he’s just being provocative. In some ways that’s true; I didn’t find a whole lot in the book that I would consider completely outside the bounds of historic Christian belief. On the other hand, there are plenty of others who definitely do think Spencer’s ideas are heretical and are way out of bounds for a Christian to even consider. (For some examples of this, check out the conversation on the Emerging CGGC blog.) Regardless of whether or not Spencer is officially a heretic, his ideas do make a lot of people uncomfortable.
In regards to his ideas, let me start with Spencer’s discussion of religion vs. spirituality. Right away (and this is one of the things I didn’t really like about the book), it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly is meant by these terms. The book doesn’t really give a clear definition. Scot McKnight however does a good job of summing up what he thinks Spencer is getting at
Religion seems to be his term for institutional faith, esp Christianity, in its churchiness, its creeds, and its required commitments. It is finite attempts to capture the infinite (28) and, as I read him, religion is a “consensual illusion” (29). It is designed to “point the way to God, not to control the flow” (40).
Spirituality is equality, a feminine/masculine sense of God, countercultural dynamic, mystery, experience, interconnectedness, beyond authority structures, holistic individuals, the particular rather than the universal, material as much as heavenly, authenticity and honesty, and a communal, holistic celebration of the sacred that eradicates boundaries.
Given these definitions, Spencer says a lot about how religion has become a barrier to people who are honestly seeking God, and how now, in our postmodern era, people are gradually learning to circumvent religion and approach the divine through the freedom of spirituality. He predicts that religion in its institutional forms are destined to die away, and suggests that perhaps we’re entering an age when people will no longer look to institutions to help mediate their relationships with God. As he says on page 90-91,
“People are not leaving churches because they’ve ended their spiritual journey or have abandoned their commitment to the teachings of Jesus… On the contrary, people are leaving the church because they want to embrace something more than abstract ideas and religious dogma. They want a transforming spirituality that gives their life shape and meaning.”
Personally, I think Spencer somewhat overstates his case, though I don’t completely disagree with his assessment. Actually, I was never quite sure how far to take Spencer’s comments. At times he seems to come down pretty hard on “religion”, but I couldn’t quite tell if he really thought that all forms of church and corporate spirituality were worthless or bound for the trash heap. In my own opinion, it is far too premature to write eulogies for institutional religion just yet. I also don’t think that the church, even as an institution, entirely fails at leading people into a transforming spirituality. At least, I have known many people whose lives have been transformed for the better in and through the church.
What I had a hard time figuring out is whether Spencer was saying we needed less church or better church. Is the problem with institutionalized religion altogether, or do we just need better institutions (perhaps scaled back, and based more on horizontal rather than hierarchical relationships and leadership structures)? As someone who is in the process of creating an “institution”, i.e. a local church, I would personally say the latter. I think there is value in the church, and really, I think some institutionalization is inevitable. Human beings like organization. Whenever you have more than a handful of people who get together on a regular basis for spiritual pursuits, you are going to need some kind of structure, some kind of system, some order. At any rate, I think that religion and spirituality are not always opposites. Often the church is an important means for people to find spirituality
At times Spencer doesn’t seem to have entirely given up on the church either. Indeed, on the phone he remarked to me that he still spends the bulk of his time speaking and interacting within the structures of institutional Christianity (i.e. churches, conferences, publishers, etc.), so I would guess that he still sees something there worth being redeemed.
Spencer’s main complaint against institutional religion, however, seems to be the ways in which it seeks to exclude people from God’s grace. He writes several chapters about how religion likes to set itself up as the gatekeepers of heaven, determining who gets in and who doesn’t. Instead, Spencer suggests that we should stop worrying about who is “in” and “out” altogether. The important thing, according to Spencer, is “not a belief system, but a holistic approach of following what you feel, experience, discover, and believe; it is a willingness to join Jesus in his vision for a transformed humanity.” (131) The true purpose of the church then, “is to take on a facilitating role, helping people find their way with God rather than attempting to determine and control exactly what that relationship to God “must” look like.” (132)
This is where Spencer’s “universalism” comes in. I say that in quotes because Spencer is not actually a universalist. While he uses that term in the book, he does so rather “tongue-in-cheek”. He is a “universalist that believes in Hell”, which is to say, not really a universalist. Rather, Spencer is an extreme inclusivist. His suggestion is basically that perhaps salvation is an opt-out rather than an opt-in. In other words, God’s grace and forgiveness is already extended to all people. Because of what Christ did on the Cross, we are all “saved”, i.e. recipients of God’s grace right from the day we are born. However, because we still have free will, and because God will never force anyone to love him, we all still have the option of rejecting God’s grace, of refusing his love. Perhaps, suggests Spencer, salvation is not so much about intellectually assenting to the particular doctrines of the Christian religion, but is simply about responding to God’s love and accepting his free grace to us, in whatever form it appears. (Incidentally, I think this whole view would help greatly in making sense of what Paul says in Romans 5:12-19.)
Personally, I think Spencer is on to something. I think many of his ideas: his inclusivism, his opinion that faith is more about spiritual transformation than intellectual orthodoxy, and his vision for a church that serves as facilitators and tour guides to faith rather than as gate keepers to heaven – these are all valuable contributions to the conversation. They are ideas that are worth pursuing further – and many already have, from Brian McLaren to NT Wright to Dallas Willard. My disappointment however, is that Spencer himself doesn’t do a very good job of supporting his ideas with much deep biblical thinking or persuasive argument. Again, as he told me, that wasn’t his intention in the first place, he wasn’t trying to convince Christians to all agree with him. However, these issues are important enough that I’d hate to see a lot of Christians simply dismiss them because of Spencer’s lack of intellectual or biblical rigor.
In short, my own earlier prediction about this book was proved true: I liked some of the answers in Spencer's book, but not how he arrived at them. And I disliked some of his answers, but still really value the questions they were born out of.
If anyone is interested, perhaps we'll have a discussion of A Heretic's Guide at up/rooted sometime in the next few months. Let me know what you think.